Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Angelina tackles Cambodia’s painful past

Angelina tackles Cambodia’s painful past

Her film about the Khmer Rouge, which is being screened around the country ahead of a global release, has brought back bad memories

Her film about the Khmer Rouge, which is being screened around the country ahead of a global release, has brought back bad memories

Rupert Winchester | March 8th 2017

Late last month, in the ruins of the ancient city of Angkor Thom in north-western Cambodia, more than a thousand of the country’s great and good gathered for a film premiere. Dressed in their finest sarongs and most colourful shirts, the guests, who included King Norodom Sihamoni (above) and senior members of the government, were there to watch “First They Killed My Father”, directed by Angelina Jolie. The film is being shown at screenings around the country before it is released to a global audience on Netflix later this year.

Adapted from a bestselling memoir by Loung Ung, it is the first Western-funded film since “The Killing Fields” (1984) to examine the four brutal years under the Khmer Rouge. Shot from a child’s point of view, it chronicles the experiences of five-year-old Loung Ung and her family as they and their fellow Cambodians are forced into the Khmer Rouge’s version of communism, an experiment that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.7m people.

If you spend any time in Cambodia, it’s hard not to be aware of the horrors that took place between 1975 and 1979. My tuk-tuk driver grew up in a refugee camp on the Thai border; my landlord lost his parents and sisters in a work camp; my translator crawled out of the country across a field of corpses. Almost all tourists to Phnom Penh visit a torture centre in the heart of the city and an execution camp on the outskirts of town. 

Cambodia’s younger generation, however, appears to have little understanding of what its parents and grandparents went through. A survey conducted a few years ago by the University of California found that while nearly 70 percent of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 30, four out of five young people know little or nothing about the Khmer Rouge years. 

This is not as surprising as it seems: until recently, the genocide was conspicuously absent from the school curriculum. The government, led for the last 32 years by Hun Sen, who was a commander in the Khmer Rouge, has avoided interrogating the recent past. Over the years, it has actively discouraged prosecutions of figures allegedly responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. The Buddhist faith, which preaches forgiveness rather than retribution, is not the only force at play.

The connectedness of the Facebook generation is forcing the country to become more open, and it says a lot that Jolie was given the green light to film in Cambodia. She first came to the country to make the film “Tomb Raider” (2001) and fell in love with the kingdom, subsequently adopting a Cambodian son, buying a large estate in the countryside and giving her time and money to the country’s rehabilitation. She has claimed that the Cambodian people don’t pay any attention to her fame and let her shop unmolested in the local markets, but that may be overstating the case somewhat. At the premiere, the crowd cheered every time she spoke or waved. 

Her celebrity was not the only factor that helped her make the film. Her partnership with Rithy Panh, a well-known Cambodian film producer, smoothed the way, as did the film-makers’ promise to use local technicians and actors. Reportedly, 3,500 extras were used and the dialogue is entirely in Khmer. Hun Sen met with Jolie in 2015, before the filming started, although he was noticeably absent from the premiere. 

As bats swooped overhead in the night sky, their squeaks mingled with sobbing from the audience, many of whom had begun the evening excitedly snapping selfies. For those over a certain age, the film brought back terrible memories: the forced exodus from the cities, the work camps, the starvation and beatings, the indoctrination and the paranoia, the executions and the torture. Sixty-seven-year-old Sothea Pich was visibly overcome. “It felt very real, it was just like it was,” she told me. “It’s hard for me to remember it.” Sao Saroeun was six when the Khmer Rouge came to power. He said he had mixed feelings about the film. “I felt both excited and afraid to watch it. The Khmer people suffered a lot, and the story shows our pain. But it felt very real and true. It is a very good film.” 

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.