First They Killed My Father (2017)
Film titles can at times reveal too much. They can give away inciting incidents, climaxes, and character arcs. They are an immensely important aspect to screenwriting that leads to making a screenplay reach its finished product. The title is meant to intrigue and grabs the attention of the viewer. Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” does just that. It grabs the attention but feels as if it’s forewarning or spoiling its biggest moment of emotional resonance. Instead, the title does anything but that and acts more as a metaphorical representation than anything else. The narrative follows that of the perspective of Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch) during the events that she encountered under the rule of Khmer Rouge as a child. It provides a grounded point of view to that of a historical atrocity and uses the grace, skill, and empathy of the filmmaking to resonate beyond the borders of its hauntingly authentic history. It’s not a masterpiece for me, but it’s the most powerful foreign film of 2017 for me thus far.
Angelina Jolie has crafted a technical masterpiece with this one. She can use that of precise editing and masterful cinematography to capture the tragedies and horrific imagery experience through the eyes of this beautiful little girl. The camera moves across the scenery in a gliding manner of seamlessness. The camera captures every moment in its raw and unequivocal authenticity. The use of perspective style filmmaking is an essential aspect of this film’s resonance. The perception of a child experiencing these events through her innocent eyes is mesmerizingly brilliant. The essence of the moments reign with more bitterness and heart-wrenching glimpses of her reaction to these developments that feel depressingly resonating, especially when the actual events feel reminiscent to what we see on the screen.
The screenwriting is remarkable as it works in perfect tandem with the perspective direction to capture those moments where a child misunderstanding the events taking place adds an extra dose of sorrow to this film’s screenplay. The characters feel as if they’re nearing an end that asks for them to do things that none of us should ever be forced to do. To take actions that leave scars behind that are unable to heal by that of bandages or medicine. The production design plays a factor in carrying the authenticity of this film.
The filming on location. The use of an entire cast made up of those who belong in the screenplay. Sareum Srey Moch captures a beautiful performance that feels earned and never feels as if she putting on performance. It seems more like a depicted documentary-style performance as her portrayal of Loung Ung never feels like acting, but more like we stumbled upon these events and decided to record them to share them with the world. Her character seems like the reasoning of the title.
The killing of her father isn’t necessarily the equivalent of his literal death, but one scene infers just that without revealing it. It’s more of something she dreads then something she witnesses. The title though, for me at least, serves more as a metaphorical representation of this little girl watching the slow death of the father she used to know. The man she used to call pa is no longer that, but merely someone that is focused on surviving and keeping his family together. The more she sees him struggle to keep a smile and the more he is unable to provide answers to her questions, the more she feels as if he’s stepping further away from her. The family gap widens as this family struggles become internal as the children are slowly learning the rules of the new world they’ve entered and the pain their parents feel begins to get shared by that of the children.
The screenplay nails this growing sense of resentment and longing sense of dread in a way that is unequivocally brilliant. The only flaw I have with this film is that of its runtime. Some moments feel unnecessarily added to focus more on the historical context than anything else. They are moments that feel as if they not adding any levity to the characters. Instead, these moments add severity to the historical background. I understand the reasoning behind it, but this aspect of the film felt the most unearned and unneeded. I rather learn more about the internal conflicts this family was sharing or that of the heartbreak that Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch) was experiencing. It’s small flaw that kept me from capturing that final dose of resonance to bring out some tears from me.
“First They Killed My Father” is Angelina Jolie’s moment of inserting her name into the discussion for top female directors working today. Her direction is nothing short of remarkable as she can use that of perspective filmmaking and mesmerizing cinematography to carry this film to new heights that otherwise would feel bland and empty. The added dose of the perception of a child witnessing these tragic moments is wanted this film to feel emotionally authentic.
The subtext of this film seems as if it’s touching on the topic of the limited perspective of Americans. It captures the idea of looking at a different view of someone who's from a different part of the world. Someone that is experiencing hardships and tragedies that most of us never have. It’s a beautiful sentiment that doesn’t spoil its title in any way, as I discussed earlier, the title hints more at the core of its story than revealing its plot points. The runtime is a bit too long for me, but the result is nothing short of compelling as “First They Killed My Father” is simply heartwrenching while maintaining an added dose of technical beauty. What more can you ask for?