Angelina Jolie’s much-anticipated film First They Killed My Father, the first major film about Cambodia’s genocide in over 30 years, makes its Netflix debut on September 15, 2017. Will its all-Cambodian cast and vivid scenes generate renewed interest in this period of the country’s history?
Directed and produced by award-winning Hollywood actress, director and humanitarian Angelina Jolie, the Netflix release of First They Killed My Father is released on Netflix on September 15, 2017. Based on a memoir by Loung Ung, a long-time friend of Jolie’s, the film describes the violent days of 1970s Cambodia when the regime took over the country, and mass murders, forced labor camps and torture prisons became part and parcel of daily Cambodian life under the regime, led by Pol Pot.
The author and Jolie became friends after the actress read Ung’s book of the same name, written from the perspective of a five-year-old Ung, from the forced evacuation in Phnom Penh to life in the Khmer Rouge camps. The two women have been friends for some 16 years and Ung both co-wrote the screenplay and was a consultant on set. Shot in Battambang and Siem Reap in late 2015 and early 2016 with a Cambodian cast and crew, around 500 Cambodians worked on the film, including Cambodian production team Bophana Production, founded by Rithy Panh, co-producer on the film and one of Cambodia’s most respected filmmakers, who lost several family members during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Over 3,500 background actors were employed to recreate the harrowing scenes of forced evacuations, battle scenes and the Vietnamese invasion which marked the end of the regime. These vivid scenes pull few punches and it is hoped that the film will educate Cambodia’s younger generation about the brutal regime, as some do not believe or do not know just how horrific it was.
It’s the first major production about this period in Cambodian history since Roland Joffé’s 1984 film, The Killing Fields, which tells the story of Dith Pran, a Cambodian photojournalist left behind in the country after the evacuation of his Western colleague, journalist Sydney Schanberg. The most striking difference between the two is Jolie’s film features no white characters to explain events in English; the all-Cambodian cast includes Sareum Srey Moch playing the role of Ung, and Phoeung Kompheak and Sveng Socheata as her parents.
First They Killed My Father had its world premiere at the temple city of Angkor Thom in Siem Reap on February 18, 2017, with subsequent screenings in Battambang and the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. The film is in the Khmer language, with occasional forays into French and Vietnamese, and will be subtitled for international audiences when it is released on Netflix. It is also hoped the use of the Khmer language in such a major movie will also lead to a revival of Khmer among the younger generation.
“I’ll always be very grateful to this country. I don’t think I ever could give back as much as this country has given me.”
Along with ministers and officials, Khmer Rouge survivors were among the almost one thousand people who attended February’s world premiere, which also included King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath. At the premiere, Jolie gave an exclusive interview to the BBC: “I’ll always be very grateful to this country. I don’t think I ever could give back as much as this country has given me.” She also hoped the film would encourage more Cambodians to speak honestly and openly about the genocide, as many survivors “haven’t told their children their story”.
Jolie’s relationship with Cambodia began in 2001 when she filmed action film Tomb Raider there and set about adopting her first son, Maddox. Two years later, she set up the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, a Cambodia-based NGO focussing on environmental conservation and rural poverty. She also started working and donating money to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, for which she then became a goodwill ambassador.
Cited as Hollywood’s highest-paid actress and the winner of an Academy Award, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and three Golden Globe Awards, Jolie’s involvement with the film is expected to bring the film, and Cambodian history, to a new global audience.
Find out more on the Netflix website.
Find out about Loung Ung, the author of First They Killed My Father and the sequel, After They Killed Our Father.
Visit the website of Choeung Ek Genocidal Center—The Killing Fields Museum.
Read more about the work of the Documentation Center of Cambodia for Memory and Justice.