As the sun set last night over the Terrace of the Elephants amid the ruins of Angkor Thom, nearly 1,000 people – from ministers and the royal family to survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime – took their seats for the world premiere of the Angelina Jolie-directed First They Killed My Father. After Jolie had greeted the arrival of King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, the lights came down and for a brief moment the rustling of insects was the only sound as the crowd hushed. This was a moment many in the Kingdom have been waiting for.
An adaptation of Loung Ung’s autobiographical book recounting her and her family’s suffering under the Khmer Rouge, the film recounts in vivid detail the forced evacuations from Phnom Penh, the journey to the brutal labor camps in the country’s northwest, and, for Ung, being conscripted as a soldier into the ranks of the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea. Ung, who is portrayed in a highly emotional performance by child actress Sareum Srey Moch, was five years old when her family was ordered out of the capital. For some fellow survivors in attendance, the depiction on the big screen was a harrowing but cathartic experience.
Say Vorphorn, a 45-year-old doctor at the screening, said that while his experience as a child-survivor of the Khmer Rouge was less brutal than that of the movie’s protagonist, the loss of his own father resonated deeply.
“I was three years old during that time, but I didn’t suffer as much because my mother was a cook,” he said. “[But] I feel this deeply inside my heart because my father was killed during that time.”
Ma Rynet, the star of The Last Reel, who played an extra in a scene in which a captured Khmer Rouge soldier is beaten by angry villagers, said that seeing the final product brought her to tears.
“I hope the world will know Cambodia through this film,” she said.
Shot entirely in the country in late 2015 and early 2016, First They Killed My Father is the biggest Khmer-language film to date and the first big budget film about the Khmer Rouge for international audiences since the 1984 film The Killing Fields. Whereas The Killing Fields was framed around the true story of an American journalist, First They Killed My Father is told solely through the eyes of Ung – a decision Jolie, Ung and Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle say was taken early on in the production.
“[The book] helped me to open my eyes to different things happening in the world – things I didn’t know about that I didn’t learn in school,” Jolie said.
Co-producer and celebrated Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh explained the choice of subject matter simply at a press conference before the screening: “It’s a story that has to be told.”
Pre-Khmer Rouge golden-era actress Dy Saveth, who escaped Cambodia before the Pol Pot regime but nonetheless lost 10 family members, saw the film as a cautionary tale for the country.
“We have to remember, but we don’t need to be angry with [the Khmer Rouge], so we need to remember and avoid that this happens again.”
Another survivor, Sin Nou Visakha, 65, broke into tears as she spoke to The Post after the screening.
“I felt overwhelmed by this movie, and scared because the movie was realistic,” she said. “The image is the same as reality – 100 percent the same. It touches my heart.”
For Visakha, First They Killed My Father has the potential to be an invaluable way of educating Cambodia’s youth about the horrors of the past.
“I want the young children to watch this, more than old people, because we have been through it and some of the young people don’t believe that we suffered like that.”
First They Killed My Father will be screened again tonight in Siem Reap at the Terrace of the Elephants, followed by a screening at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, February 21 and in Battambang on February 23, ahead of its worldwide release on Netflix later this year.