First They Killed My Father: A Film Review

First They Killed My Father is a Netflix original film directed by Angelina Jolie and based on the book with the same name written by Loung Ung. At the age of five, Loung survived the Cambodian genocide, which was carried out by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979. Through Loung’s eyes the audience witnesses the evacuation of Phnom Penh, the scattering of her family, her fight for survival while training as a child soldier, and ultimately, her journey to freedom and reunion with her siblings.

A major strength of this film is the chance it gives Cambodians to tell their own story of survival and recovery from genocide. Angelina Jolie co-wrote the screenplay with Ung and the cast is made up entirely of Cambodian actors speaking in their native Khmer (English subtitles are, of course, provided). The entire film was also shot on location in Cambodia. This is rare in Hollywood today, where there is constant controversy over actors of one race or ethnicity being cast to play another. I applaud Jolie and Ung for maintaining the purity of this story by casting Cambodian actors. The end result is a more impactful film.

The purpose of this film is not to educate you about the Pol Pot regime, a dark period of history I have found many Americans know little about. Instead, it’s meant to give you a small taste of what it was like to live through it. The characters don’t waste time explaining what is happening, and at several points during the film I found myself frustrated that I didn’t understand exactly what was going on. But then I realized that this was intentional. At five years old, Loung would have understood very little of the political intricacies of her situation. Her only concern was surviving. In a small way, my own frustration and confusion mirrored hers. The film was immersing me in her world.

As you watch First They Killed My Father, prepare to experience the full range of emotion that Loung does: confusion, fear, anger, frustration, grief, and the bittersweet joy of reunion. Though it will be disarming at times, you may find that this emotional experience teaches you far more about genocide and the consequences of war than a documentary or a history book ever could.

If, after finishing the film, you are interested in learning more about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Genocide, I would highly recommend reading Killing Fields, Living Fields by Don Cormack. It tells the story of the Church in Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime. It will leave you praising God for his faithfulness and also praying for Christ’s swift return. I read the book in the summer of 2012 while teaching English to Bible school students in Cambodia. It was such a powerful experience to read the history of the streets I walked on and to appreciate the spiritual legacy of the students I taught.