Jolie wears her heart on her sleeve
Angelina Jolie’s fascination with true life stories of suffering and triumph over extreme adversity continues with First They Killed My Father, released on Netflix this Friday. She stays in the Far East, this time moving from World War II Japan of Unbroken (2014) and the story of Louie Zamperini, to Cambodia under the rule of the fearsome Khmer Rouge in the mid-70s in her adaptation of the memoir by human rights campaigner, Loung Ung. In their savagely short reign, the regime killed a quarter of the country’s population, through mass killings, famine and malnutrition.
Perhaps the most familiar portrayal of this bloody piece of modern history is Roland Joffe’s Oscar winning The Killing Fields (1985), where we were shown graphic evidence of the locations in the title. Jolie’s approach is different, showing us events through the eyes of the little Loung (Srey Moch Sareum), who is just five when the film starts. She’s an impassive observer, drinking in everything and saying very little, seeing mainly the aftermath of the mass murders, rather than actual killings. When she does witness them, they come towards the end in one of the most tragic sequences, set in forest littered with landmines that the little girl herself helped to bury.
To set the scene, Jolie takes us on a brisk trot through America’s history in Vietnam, pointing the finger of blame fairly and squarely at the Nixon regime’s attacks on Cambodia. Then we’re swiftly taken into the heart of Loung’s family: the father works for the government and they have a comfortable life. All that changes with the arrival in the streets of the Khmer Rouge, whose initial benign appearance disguises the fanatics, with their red and white bandanas. Like everybody else, the family leave their home and are forced to do manual labour in the countryside. It’s the start of a horrifying odyssey for the little girl in particular, but her brothers and sisters as well.
There’s no doubting Jolie’s sincerity, some of which inevitably comes from her personal connection with Cambodia, and it gives the film a very earnest tone. But it also limits our view of events because we only see what the little girl sees and only feel what she feels. Once the Khmer Rouge has taken over, there’s little sense of the world outside, apart from enemy attacks and they are, essentially anonymous. We’re made to focus on the labour camps, the hardship and children being trained as soldiers – teaching them how to use weapons, indoctrinating them in the party’s philosophy. Her impassive face belies her age and it’s all too easy to forget that she’s still just a vulnerable child. The reminders, when they come, pull no punches and she cries like she’ll never stop.
Choosy when it comes to her cinematographers, Jolie put the peerless Roger Deakins behind the camera for Unbroken. This time she’s opted for another Brit, Anthony Dod Mantle, who perfectly brings out the beauty of the landscape and searches little Loung’s face for every pain and trauma. His repeated use of aerial shots is less successful: while they’re effective in showing the greater landscape, dotted with insignificant people and reflecting how the Khmer Rouge regard them, he over uses them and they become repetitive. By the time the end of the film approaches, they’ve lost their clout.
The director’s compassion and love for children is so apparent that you expect a happy ending. Indeed, the final sequences have a tone which is in sharp contrast to the rest of the film – moving and uplifting, but perhaps just a touch too idyllic. But for anybody who knows little or nothing of what happened during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, this is a harrowing eye-opener, one that’s delivered with conviction and genuine heart.
First They Killed My Father launches on Netflix on Friday, 15 September.