First They Killed My Father is available on Netflix
Loung (Sareum Srey Moch) lives an ordinary life in Pnom Penh with her brothers, sisters, mother (Sveng Socheata) and beloved father (Phoeung Kompheak). She catches glimpses of fighting and bombs on the television, but none of it means much to her. Then one day an army marches through the streets outside, and Loung’s world changes forever.
The Khmer Rouge have taken power in Cambodia, and Loung’s father – an educated employee of the former government – could be in serious danger. The family must hide their identity as they are turned out of their home and forced into a labour camp. As conditions worsen and her former life begins to feel ever further away, Loung loses her innocence piece by piece.
First They Killed My Father shares some of its subject matter with Angelina Jolie’s 2014 film Unbroken, which also portrayed the brutality of labour camp life and the limits of human endurance in such a place. To my mind, though, First They Killed My Father is far superior work. Where Unbroken sometimes felt like a Hollywoodised take on suffering and survival, First… is devastating in its quiet naturalism.
There can be few things more heartbreaking than watching atrocities unfold through the eyes of a child. Nine-year-old Sareum Srey Moch captivates as Loung, while Jolie’s script and direction (in collaboration with her longtime friend, the real Loung Un, on whose memoir the film is based) find a deep empathy for her perspective. As we watch Loung and her ordinary, loving family descend into a nightmare beyond their control, we’re reminded that experiences like theirs are sadly not confined to history.
Though the film is often a tough watch, and carries an urgent and pointed relevance to today’s headlines, it would be wrong to describe it as simply gruelling, or educational ‘required viewing’. First They Killed My Father is scattered with moments of humanity, hope and grace.
- How much did you know about the history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge before you saw the film? Did you learn anything new? How much context do you think is necessary for the film to have the right impact?
- Why do you think the filmmakers chose to tell the story entirely from Loung’s perspective, and how did they go about this? What effect did this storytelling choice have?
- How would you describe your emotional response to the film? Which scenes had the most impact on you, and which moments will you remember the longest?
‘Loung had such horrors in her life but also had so much love.’ – Director Angelina Jolie
- First They Killed My Father was shot in Cambodia, with a local cast and crew, in the Khmer language – but it was directed by Angelina Jolie, an American. What ethical considerations might there be for an outsider telling another country’s sensitive national story in this way? Do you think Jolie was right to direct the film herself, and why or why not?
- How does the film portray its villains, the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge? Why might filmmakers choose to humanise – or not to humanise – characters like this? How might art help us better understand the nature of evil?
- How did you react to the film’s portrayal of life under an oppressive regime? What details particularly shocked or disturbed you?
- What did you think of the decision to end by cutting to the real-life Loung and her surviving siblings? Was this an appropriate conclusion to the story, and did you feel it struck the right balance between grief and hope?
‘Once you get exposed to what’s really happening in the world, and other people’s realities, you just can’t ever not know, and you can’t ever wake up and pretend it’s not happening. Your entire life shifts.’ – Director Angelina Jolie
- Did First They Killed My Father alter your perspective on life, or inspire you to take action on behalf of people like Loung and her family? How can we be on guard against words and actions that dehumanise and oppress others – both around the world, and closer to home?