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Suffering and compassion

Eileen McCormich / Khmer Times Share:
Sareum Srey Moch plays Loung Ung in this movie. Netflix

“First They Killed My Father” has been nominated for an Oscar in the foreign language film category. The film is set in Cambodia in the mid-1970s just after the United States carpet-bombed the country – a brutal act in the name of fighting communism during the Vietnam War.

First They Killed My Father – Credit: Courtesy Netflix

The movie, directed by Angelina Jolie, is based on the book written by Loung Ung who helped write the screenplay with Jolie.

The opening scenes of “First They Killed My Father” convincingly make a strong stance on American responsibility for Cambodia’s devastating destruction caused by the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Author William Shawcross in his seminal work “Sideshow” documented, through interviews and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, how a superpower could decimate a poor country as part of its projection of global power.

“All those who, somehow, believe that the sufferings inflicted on the Cambodian people, first by the Pol Pot regime, and now by the Vietnamese, retrospectively justify America’s attempt to save Phnom Penh from the Reds [communists] must read this book, for it presents hard and irrefutable documentary evidence showing that the monsters who decimated the Cambodian people were brought to power by Washington’s policies,” wrote The New York Review of Books.

The movie uses various new archival clips from 1970s with the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil” playing in the background, juxtaposed with moving images of US President Richard Nixon ensuring the American people that “Cambodia is the Nixon doctrine in its purest form”.

But the movie was not filmed with the perspective of presenting the harsh realities of global geopolitics played out in the Greater Mekong Subregion – something that’s best left to moviemaker-journalist John Pilger.

Instead, “First They Killed My Father” depicts the period from 1975 to 1979 through the eyes of a child, when the Khmer Rouge enslaved a whole generation of Cambodians, tearing apart families and leaving children feeling afraid and hopeless.

Loung, played by Sareum Srey Moch, is seven and comes from a middle class family in Phnom Penh that embraces a Western flair for general pop culture at the time.

Her father works for the Lon Nol government in power who helped overthrow King Father Norodom Sihanouk. Once the Khmer Rouge take over the country and empties Phnom Penh at gunpoint, her family’s status and their past put them at grave risk – that even their relatives in rural Battambang refuse to shelter them. And that’s when a cruel twist of fate tears the family apart.

Loung becomes a child soldier and her whole demeanor changes from that of a cute wide-eyed girl to a battle hardened fighter.

By compulsion, Loung has figuratively died to make room for a warrior. The movie moves from her being a starving child to that of a child solider with jaw dropping shots of her and other children holding their rifles above their heads – all just staying still in a river under the pouring rain. A poisonous water snake slithers among them, but they just remain stoically motionless. Nonetheless, despite the discipline and indoctrination she receives as a child solder, Loung maintains her innocence.

Jolie is superb in bringing out the subtleties in “First They Killed My Father”. The viewer is reminded that despite all the suffering, there is still hope for humanity. And Loung displays it all the time.

For instance, she places water lilies in tents she spends the night, in the refugee camp. When she sees another person suffering, even if it is her enemy, she has flashbacks of the torture her father endured and in turn shows compassion.

As the viewer you assume Loung’s story ends once she makes it to a refugee camp were she is reunited with her siblings. But Angelina Jolie takes it a step further. Utilising astonishing cinema photography, thanks to producer Rithy Panh, you are taken back to the modern day Angkor Wat with Loung’s real family survivors.

This is a must see movie for anyone living in Cambodia and you can catch it on Netflix.

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