First They Killed My Father (Khmer: មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ, Mŭn Dâmbong Khmêr Krâhâm Sâmloăb Pa Rôbás Khnhŭm) is a 2017 Cambodian–American Khmer-language biographical historical thriller film directed by Angelina Jolie and written by Jolie and Loung Ung, based on Ung’s memoir of the same name.
Set in 1975, the film depicts 7-year-old Loung, who is forced to be trained as a child soldier while her siblings are sent to labor camps during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Also known as First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (promotional title).
During the Vietnam War, the fighting spills over into neighbouring Cambodia when the US military begins bombing North Vietnamese forces attempting to shelter in the neutral territory, commencing the Cambodian Civil War. The US then pulls out of Cambodia and evacuates its embassy. An officer of the Khmer National Armed Forces, Ung, known as “Pa” to his seven children, including 5-year-old Loung Ung, expresses regret for having trusted the Americans as the Khmer Rouge draw closer.
The Khmer Rouge forces all families to leave the city as refugees, under the pretext that it will be bombed by Americans. Pa Ung denies working for the government when questioned by the Khmer Rouge soldiers, knowing that he will be killed if discovered. The family is found by “Uncle” (Loung’s maternal uncle), Pa’s brother-in-law, and Loung’s family stays with Uncle’s family for some time. However, at the insistence of Uncle’s wife, who fears the consequences if Pa’s identity is discovered, Loung’s family has to leave.
After days of travel they are rounded up by Khmer Rouge soldiers and taken with other refugees to a labour camp, where they have to build their own shelter and are forced to work under harsh conditions. Their possessions are confiscated, food is scarce as all crops are sent to fighting units, and any attempt to get more food is punished with merciless beatings. Loung is a witness to her siblings’ merciless beatings as they try to get more food for themselves and their family.
Aside from hard work, the camp preaches the regime propaganda, and any foreign items (including life-saving medicine) are forbidden and carry a death penalty. Loung’s two oldest brothers and oldest sister are reassigned to other camps, and soon afterward her sister dies from sickness and starvation.
One day Loung sees Pa taken away by the Khmer Rouge officials to repair a bridge. Knowing what awaits him, he says goodbye to his wife and children. Later on, Loung has a nightmare in which she sees him executed and buried in a mass grave.
Soon afterward, Ma tells Loung, her brother Kim, and her older sister Chou to flee in different directions and seek new working camps under false identities as orphans. Loung and her sister separate from their brother and reach another camp.
There, Loung is recruited to be a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese have come to rescue Cambodia from Khmer Rouge. Loung learns hand-to-hand combat, shooting, and preparation of traps, and works on laying mine fields against the Vietnamese. Children are constantly taught propaganda and bitter hatred of the Vietnamese, but they get more food and are treated better than workers in the labour camps.
One day Loung gets a pass to visit her sister in the labour camp, but instead she travels to the camp where her mother and youngest sister were left behind. She finds their hut empty, and an old woman tells her that her family was taken away by the Khmer Rouge soldiers. That night Loung dreams about her mother lying dead in a mass grave with her youngest sister left next to her corpse to die.
Loung’s camp is destroyed by Vietnamese shelling, forcing her to flee along with other civilians. On the road she reunites with her brother and sister who stay for a night in a temporary refugee camp managed by Vietnamese troops, where the siblings join a group of children. As the camp is attacked by Khmer Rouge forces the next morning, they slip behind the defending Vietnamese to escape the fighting into jungle, where Loung is separated from her siblings and witnesses other refugees killed and maimed by the mines that she herself helped set.
The three siblings are reunited in another refugee camp that is run by the Red Cross. There Loung sees people beating a captured Khmer Rouge soldier. She sees him as her father and flashes back to the violence in her life. As she cries out, “Pa”, to the man, the aggressors disperse. Loung looks at the beaten man and walks away.
As the war ends, Loung and her younger siblings are reunited with their older brothers who also survived the camps. The movie ends with all the children in present time, praying with the monks for their lost family members in the ruins of a Buddhist temple.
- Sreymoch Sareum as Loung Ung.
- Kompheak Phoeung as Pa Ung.
- Socheta Sveng as Ma.
- Mun Kimhak as Kim.
- Run Malina as Chou.
- Sreyneang Oun as Keav.
- Tep Rindaro as Lon Nol.
- Horm Chhora.
- Dy Sonita.
- Loung Ung as her now self.
- Tharoth Sam as child soldier leader.
The film’s cast is almost entirely Cambodian actors and its dialogue is almost entirely in the Khmer language.
On 23 July 2015, it was announced that Angelina Jolie would direct a film adaptation of the memoir First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung for Netflix, for which Jolie and Ung co-wrote the script. Jolie would also produce the film along with Rithy Panh, while Jolie’s son Maddox Jolie-Pitt would be an executive producer.
Principal photography on the film began in early November 2015 in Siem Reap and wrapped in February 2016 in Battambang, Cambodia. Filming also took place in Phnom Penh.
The film was selected as the Cambodian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 90th Academy Awards, but it was not nominated. It was the first time a prominent American director’s non-English film was submitted since the Academy set a rule in 1984 that a country’s submission has “artistic control” from a “creative talent of that country”; Jolie has dual citizenship with the US and Cambodia.
- Producer Rithy Panh is himself a survivor of the Cambodian genocide.
- His acclaimed documentaries Cambodia, entre guerre et paix (1991), Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy (1996), The Land of the Wandering Souls (2000), S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2011) and The Missing Picture (2013) are about the victims, the perpetrators and his own experiences.
- Almost all Cambodian artists, actors and film professionals were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime and only a few of the directors were able to flee the country.
- The history of the birth and destruction of Cambodian cinema is covered in the documentary Golden Slumbers (2011) from the first Cambodian film made in 1960 to the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in 1975.
- In these 15 years, about 400 films were produced, but only 30 films survived.
- With a few of the survivors telling their stories, the documentary tries to bring back to life the myths and legends of this lost cinema.
- Most of the old movie theatres of Phnom Penh have now become restaurants, karaoke places or squats.
- Based on the deadly rule of the Khmer Rouge, a communist inspired movement led by the dictator Pol Pot, under which an estimated 25% of the Cambodian population died from malnutrition, forced labour and mass murder from 1975 until 1979. This historical event is today known as the Cambodian genocide.
- Director, co-writer and producer Angelina Jolie has had Cambodian citizenship since 2005, and her adopted son Maddox was born there.
Production & Filming Details
- Angelina Jolie.
- Sarah Bowen … executive producer.
- Brian Clopp … co-producer.
- Pauline Fischer … executive producer.
- Angelina Jolie … producer.
- Maddox Jolie-Pitt … executive producer.
- Rithy Panh … producer.
- Rithea Phichith … associate producer.
- Ted Sarandos … producer.
- Charles J.D. Schlissel … executive producer (as Charles Schlissel).
- Adam Somner … executive producer.
- Loung Ung … executive producer.
- Michael Vieira … producer.
- William W. Wilson III … line producer.
- Loung Ung … (screenplay by).
- Angelina Jolie … (screenplay by).
- Loung Ung … (based on the book “First They Killed My Father” by).
- Marco Beltrami.
- Anthony Dod Mantle.
- Xavier Box.
- Patricia Rommel.
- Bophana Production (production services).
- Jolie Pas Productions.
- Westec Media Limited (2017) (Cambodia) (theatrical).
- Netflix (2017) (Argentina) (video) (VOD).
- Netflix (2017) (Australia) (video) (VOD).
- Netflix (2017) (Netherlands) (video) (VOD).
- Netflix (2017) (Singapore) (video).
- Netflix (2017) (USA) (video) (VOD).
- Release Date: 18 February 2017 (Siem Reap, Premiere, Cambodia) and 02 September 2017 (Telluride Film Festival, US).
- Running Time: 136 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.