First They Killed My Father @ TIFF

First-They-Killed-My-Father-Angelina-Jolie-620x360We build up stars only to tear them down again. Make them demi-gods(desses) only to cut them down at the knees. Such is the perverted and unstable nature of stardom. There was a time where Angelina Jolie was one of the most recognized and adored celebrities in the world. Now, after some behaviour we’ve deemed as odd and her split from third husband Brad Pitt she has become something of a disliked woman. Now everything she does is looked upon with suspicion. Even her work and that is not fair.

Not fair because as a director she has shown nothing but potential and a unique voice. The film world needs more female directors period. And definitely more with strong, steady and unique stories to tell. With Unbroken and In the Land of Blood and Honey she hinted at her talent behind the camera. It is with her latest film, First They Killed My Father, that it has become fully realized. This film demonstrates that the woman is a director and knows how to tell a tale.

A tale about a people who are not her own. A tale about events she did not take part in. A tale of war through the eyes of a child. A difficult tale. A necessary tale. A tale which she seems to understand. As tough a watch as it is I was glad to have seen it. It taught me much. Much about the country and people of Cambodia and what they went through during the time of the Khmer Rouge. A history lesson told through the eyes of a child. A child forced to grow up and endure things no child should have to.

The Khmer Rouge took power of Cambodia during the mid to late 70s. During this time they, under the leadership of Pol Pot, committed atrocities against the people of the country. It is said that a quarter of the population was killed. It was a genocide. Many families were wiped out or torn apart. One such families was the Ung.

Told through the eyes of their second youngest, Luong (Sareum Srey Moch – first film) is five years old at the time the Khmer Rouge overtook Phnom Penh and seven when they were finally defeated. Over those two years young Luong sees, lives through and is made to do things no one, nevermind a child, should ever have to.

A tale of survival. At any cost. Jolie has decided to make many scenes understated and as a result they are more powerful. All that happens before your eyes has an honesty and organic nature about it. The camera is right there amidst it all. Making all that happens happen with you. You feel a part of what is going on. Jolie is meticulous about telling the story as it happened. Not dressing things up. As such, it has an almost journalistic feel to it.

Another interesting choice is the lack of politics here. Jolie does not villify anyone. Not the Khmer Rouge not the Vietnamese. Not unnecessarily anyways. The only ones she goes out of her way to criticize or judge is the Americans. For their involvement in the area and then hasty withdrawal leaving a void that Pol Pot leapt in to fill. Nor does she make the Cambodians the “other”. They are not shown to be that different due to their very normal reaction to very abnormal circumstances. The primary focus of the film is the Cambodian people. How it was for them living through the horrors of the war. It is all about the experience.

Definitely not for the faint of heart. It builds tension throughout and then crushes you during the horrific battle and minefield scene towards the end. Just because a woman is a director of the picture does not mean there are no blood and guts. It lulls you into letting your guard down and then – wham – tons of it.

This is one of most effective anti-war films ever made. Probably because it is told through the eyes and mind of a young child. The horrors and the senselessness of it all is there plain for everyone to see. Much of its power is due to the story itself, based on the memoir by Loung Ung, but some of the praise also should be heaped upon Jolie. She is unflinching in her presenting of the story. Not making any sacrifices towards commercialism. There is no Hollywood ending to be found here. Just a real and, in many ways, beautifully told story.

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