There’s only one scene in First They Killed My Father that isn’t told through the eyes of Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch), the young daughter of a high-ranking Cambodian government official who was swept up in the terror of the Khmer Rouge’s campaign of genocide in 1975. It’s the opening montage, one cutting between footage of Richard Nixon insisting on American neutrality in the country and newsreels of the violence and bombing that spilled over into Cambodia’s borders during the Vietnam War. “This is not an invasion of Cambodia,” Nixon intones over images of burning jungles and burnt bodies on the streets of Phnom Penh, as the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil” roars on the soundtrack.
Perhaps it’s a little on the nose, but it’s also the one freewheeling, stylish flourish director Angelina Jolie allows in her sober new film, an adaptation of Ung’s 2000 memoir of her childhood during the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia in the late 1970s that resulted in the deaths of close to 2 million people (a conservative estimate). First They Killed My Father, subtitled A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, is a Khmer-language film focused on the atrocities Ung personally witnessed as she was torn from her childhood in Phnom Penh during the Cambodian Civil War, and its villains are mostly the unnamed soldiers and revolutionaries that torment her family. But before she delves into this individual story, Jolie takes great strain to make clear how this chaos was sewn, and that responsibility for Cambodia’s descent into violence lies far beyond its borders.