After the ministers, dignitaries and survivors of the Khmer Rouge had filed in Saturday evening, and Angelina Jolie had greeted the arrival of King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, the lights in the ruins of the ancient city of Angkor Thom finally dimmed for the world premiere of First They Killed My Father.
For a brief moment, the rustling of insects was the only sound before the audience of more than 1,000 was transported back to April 12, 1975.
An adaptation of Loung Ung’s autobiographical book recounting her and her family’s suffering under the Khmer Rouge, the Jolie-directed film depicts in vivid detail the forced evacuations from Phnom Penh, the journey to the brutal labour camps in the country’s northwest, and, for Ung, the conscription of children as soldiers 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 at the world premiere, the depiction on the big screen was a harrowing trip back to the country’s darkest chapter.
Say Vorphorn, a 45-year-old doctor in attendance, said that while his experience as a child-survivor of the Khmer Rouge could not be compared to Ung’s, the loss of his own father resonated strongly.
“I was 3 years old during that time, but I didn’t suffer as much because my mother was a cook … [but] I feel this deeply inside my heart because my father was killed during that time,” he said.
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 added.
Shot in the country between November 2015 and February 2016, the movie employed more than 3,500 background actors to recreate scenes showing the population transfers and forced collectivisation of the Khmer Rouge, as well as battle sequences from the eventual Vietnamese invasion that toppled the regime. The film is in Khmer, with occasional French and Vietnamese, and will be released later this year on Netflix.
In an interview with The Post, Jolie said that beyond highlighting the potential of Cambodia for filmmakers – foreign and domestic – she hopes the film will in some ways reintroduce the country to international audiences.
“I hope that people will not just look at this film as a history lesson but they will walk away with a new love and respect for the country,” she said. Attending the film with her six children – one of whom is Cambodian – Jolie has pledged to remain involved in supporting the local film industry.
After attending the premiere, Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said the movie represented a new approach to portrayals of the trauma of the Pol Pot regime.
“I think that this film, for the first time, would train [a Cambodian audience] to look for a beauty in the darkness,” he said, noting that human scenes, in which Ung shares a cricket to eat with her sister, or is hit by her brother after stealing rice, “really capture the heart”.
Himself a child survivor, Chhang felt that it accurately captures the emotional complexities of a childhood experience of mass atrocity.
“Children don’t use physical resistance, they use emotion. It’s the only form of resistance to fight [with] … I think Angie [Jolie] captured the complexities of the emotion on the camera.”
Jolie, speaking to The Post after the film’s Saturday press conference at the Raffles Hotel, said that rendering a child’s point-of-view on-screen was a central challenge in orchestrating the camera-work with director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle.
A difficulty was not just having shots at Ung’s low height but deciding “what she will and will not look at”.
“That point of view grows. At a certain point she cannot look at blood, and when she’s older the POV matures and gets hardened and she starts to witness things she didn’t when she was younger,” she said.
Loung Ung, in an interview on Saturday, said that she hoped the film may break misconceptions about the emotional experience of surviving war and genocide.
“I think people will see that it takes more than anger, [and] it takes more than strength to survive. It takes love, it takes soul and we Cambodians have that in spades,” she said.
Another survivor, Sin Nou Visakha, 65, broke into tears as she spoke to The Post after the screening, calling “the image the same as reality”.
She hoped the film could educate 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 them don’t believe that we suffered like that.”
First They Killed My Father will be screening in Phnom Penh at Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, February 21, at 6pm and in Battambang on February 23. It will be available on Netflix later this year.