It's not as if Angelina Jolie hasn't proved her worth as a writer-director before now. Following on from the Bosnian war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, and Unbroken's harrowing account of life in a second World War prisoner-of-war camp, Jolie's fourth narrative feature,confirms her as an exquisite craftswoman and an artist capable of tackling geopolitical complexities.
First They Killed My Father, the official Cambodian selection for the Academy Awards, is based on the memoir of the same name by Loung Ung, whom Jolie befriended in 2002 after the actor became a goodwill ambassador for the UN.
Ung (as essayed by the remarkable Sareum Srey Moch) is the five-year-old daughter of a Cambodian government official (a nuanced Phoeung Kompheak). As the Khmer Rouge’s campaign of genocide begins, Ung and her family are forced to flee Phnom Penh and toil in the fields, where zealous overseers bark slogans: “There will be no banking, no trading and no private property.”
Jolie stays entirely focused on her young heroine save for an archival overture featuring Richard Nixon. Ung has no real knowledge of the outside world. Her experiences are repetitive, brutal and tempered by naivety: hard labour, surviving on morsels and thin gruel, and finally the dissolution of her family. As the overseers have it: "Angkar is your mother and your father."
Ironically, once she is conscripted as a child soldier and trained to fight (presumably against PRK communists in the civil war), her diet and living conditions improve.
Her short, horrific military career eventually brings her into a forest where, in a virtuoso sequence, she gingerly inches forward while landmines explode everyone around her into pieces.
Against these harrowing details, Jolie and director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire, Antichrist) have crafted a paradoxically balmy, handsome film.
This is both a personal and political project for the director; her 16-year-old Cambodian-born son, Maddox Jolie-Pitt, served as an executive producer.
Forty years on and the Cambodian genocide has seldom been depicted on film. The Killing Fields was a notable exception but even that exceptional project pivoted around Sam Waterson's American journalist. Jolie has the clout and integrity to tell the story from a Cambodian perspective. Her ambitions and conviction are matched by an authenticity – a Khmer-speaking cast, hundreds on non-CGI extras – that can't be manufactured. Sadly the film's gravitas and subject matter was always likely to sink it at the box office. It has instead made its way to video on demand. A coup for Netflix, of course, but a loss for the theatrical circuit.