The Toronto International Film Festival is known as one of the biggest film festivals in the work, attracting almost 500,000 people annually to celebrate the film and creative industries. Since its inception in 1976, TIFF has grown to be considered second only to the Cannes Film Festival in his grandeur and ability to launch upcoming films, stars and directors.
This year is no different, bringing together some of the most anticipated films of 2017 to downtown Toronto. One of those films is First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, directed by Angelina Jolie. Released as a non-fiction memoir in 2000 by Luong Ung, both the page and film adaptations follow her time and experiences during the Pol Pot regime. Through her personal experiences as a child surviving the Khmer Rouge years, it is a stark and eye opening portrayal of a time in Cambodian history some are not familiar with.
Ung, one of seven children of a government official, faces her world changing at the age of five as the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge army storm Phnom Penh in 1975. Ung and her family are forced to flee their home and move from village to village to hide their status, education and identity from a regime demanding conformity and communist status. Under the strain of this new life, the family is torn apart, as children are sent to war, the parents are taken and killed, and three of the youngest are forced to adapt to survive. Ung is eventually taken to be trained as a child solider, while her siblings are sent to labour camps. As the Vietnamese breech Cambodia, Khmer Rouge is destroyed, and the surviving family members are reunited to start over in a new Cambodia.
Those who are familiar with Jolie know her dedication and determination to better the lives of children in the developing world. Her first child, Maddox, was adopted from Cambodia, and serves as an executive producer in the film. Jolie strives to ensure accuracy and truth through the film, telling the story of not only the individual, but the nation.
“It’s the story of a war through the eyes of a child, but it is also the story of a country.” – Angelina Jolie
The film captures the feel of a country torn, first by the United States, and by fear of the Vietnamese invasion. In an effort reminiscent of Big Brother, the Khmer Rouge army twists the beliefs, abolishes individuality and and uses psychological and physical battering to mold Cambodians to their will. It is unapologetic in its honesty, relying on the story and truth of history and events rather than Hollywood theatrics to capture the audience in its tale.
Sareum Srey Moch, the talented young girl who plays Luong, immediately pulls at your heart with her innocence and strength while facing incomprehensible horrors. But through the entire film, she is resolute to surviving, to adapting, but never losing herself despite the brutal force of conformity demanded by the Pol Pot regime.
For those who enjoy true story telling, without the unnecessary added story lines of romance or CGI dramatics, this film exemplifies this. It is raw, honest, and heartbreaking, and puts a glaring lens on a part of Cambodia’s history that survivors will never forget. It does not rely on anything more than the realism of the world at that time, and the way in which Jolie capture that time is flawless in its execution, and gripping in its accuracy.
While the film is a little long, running at 2:16, all experiences faced by Ung are necessary to show not only the life of 1970’s Cambodia, but the resiliency of a young girl in spirit breaking circumstances. It shows the true strength of the human spirit like no other film I’ve seen, while also shedding light on a countries tragic history.
Release: September 15, 2017
Director: Angelina Jolie
Writers: Luong Ung, Angelina Jolie
Genre: Biography, Drama
Additional Information: Under the Pol Pot rule, an estimated 25% of Cambodia’s population died from famine, malnutrition and mass killings.