Thursday, October 19, 2017

Khmer Rouge Film Cathartic for Cambodians

By Kyle Saunders
Produced & Edited by: Lindsey Curnutte

Angelina Jolie accompanied by her children and cast members, Photo via

Cambodians are impressed with Angelina Jolie’s new Netflix film, “First They Killed My Father.” Based on Loung Ung’s memoir of the same name, the story traces Ung’s experience of the Khmer Rouge uprising during the mid-1970s through the regime’s eventual overthrow by the Vietnamese.

Jolie filmed with an entirely Cambodian cast speaking the Cambodian language of Khmer (aside from historical footage and a bit of French) from late 2015 to early 2016. “First They Killed My Father” was filmed on location in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Battambang in Cambodia with a budget of $24 million USD.

Ung co-wrote the screenplay for the film with Jolie, and her story is one of many similar accounts of Cambodian families torn apart by the auto-genocide committed under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. United Nations’ estimates put the death toll at around two million Cambodians, and families still feel the impact of this period in their history.

The Response from Cambodians
Lyroth Chea, a resident of Phnom Penh whose family has a long history there, said that most of his family went to see the film when it opened nationwide in Cambodia. 

“My family sobbed and I got choked up after seeing them [react to the movie]," Chea said. "Twelve of us went to see it and no one could escape the drama.”

When asked what particular aspects of the film evoked such strong emotions in his family, he considered some of the discussions the viewing promoted between them. 

“It really represented my mum’s past that she was about that girl’s age and she had to lead her siblings to safety," Chea said. "At one point they got lost in the jungle for days. My mum survived by eating fruit left over by monkeys. My dad is one of few in his family that survived the nightmare.”

Nget Phally, Chea’s mother who is now a purveyor of goods that celebrate Cambodia’s centuries-old heritage, explained her reaction to the film in the context of the present and as a reflection of the past. 

“It is good that someone is putting [the story on film] because it shows Cambodia to the world and it will attract tourists to the Kingdom,” Phally said, adding that the film “reflects only fifteen percent of what had happened. There were worse torture techniques.”

Chakrya Lim, a native Cambodian who spoke highly of the film, said, “Some of the people who went through the Khmer Rouge regime didn’t want to watch it because they didn’t want to relive their painful past. My mum said she didn’t want my sister to see it. She said she and my older siblings were real actors themselves.”

Screengrab from the trailer from the movie "First They Killed My Father," Photo via Netflix

Sharing Cambodia with the World

A few people interviewed for this story focused less on the past and more on the potential for learning and change that could come from a well-recognized film. Sony Ouch, a journalist based in Phnom Penh, is hopeful that the submission of the film as Cambodia’s foreign-language entry for the Oscars will generate conversation about world leaders and power.

"This story showed the reality of what happened during the Khmer Rouge regime and it showed how Cambodian people experienced the suffering," Penh said. 

"This story will make people in the world know more clearly about Cambodian people. It is a lesson for the world and all leaders around the world to be careful in making their decisions when they are in power. This is an example for everyone to learn about, not just Cambodian people alone.”

Some Cambodians also see the immediate benefits that Jolie’s film production in Cambodia has generated for the country. Sokunthea Hang, a former reporter for the Cambodia Daily and current media professor at Pannasastra University of Cambodia, believes that the Academy Award submission is only one positive aspect of the situation. 

“I think it is a great honor for Cambodia to have the opportunity to showcase the country on the international stage for the nomination. Ever since the movie was shot and screened, there have been many positive responses from the Cambodian side on its quality and how young Cambodian filmmakers were able to learn from the American production team in the filmmaking process.”

When asked about the significance of the film’s Oscars nomination in the wake of current relations between the U.S. and Cambodia, Hang responded, “Most of what is being reported in the media about U.S. and Cambodia tensions is leaning toward the current political climate in Cambodia, which does not really have much impact on the film industry.”

The Cambodian Oscars Selection Committee is comprised of members of the film industry and is not subject to government oversight. Hun Sen, the current Prime Minister of Cambodia, is a former Khmer Rouge commander who has recently tightened free speech in the lead-up to next year’s general elections. He is also listed first in the final credits thank-you section of “First They Killed My Father.”

Jolie, who received honorary Cambodian citizenship in 2005 for her conservation efforts in the country, has made clear that she hoped her project would make a significant impact for the Cambodian people. When the film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in early September, Jolie told The Hollywood Reporter that she made the movie “first and foremost for Cambodians.” She added, “I cannot find words to express what it means to me that I was entrusted with telling part of the story of this country.”

How much of an impact “First They Killed My Father” will have outside Cambodia remains to be seen, but one indicator will be its reception at the 2018 Oscars in March. “First They Killed My Father” is available for streaming on Netflix and is showing at select theaters nationwide.

**Global Spotlight is a nonprofit educational production, constituting a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided under Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law.

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