Cambodia has chosen its representative at the 2018 Academy Awards.
Angelina Jolie’s passion project, First They Killed My Father, is being put forth as Cambodia’s official selection for nominations at the Academy Awards, Deadline reports. Co-written by Jolie and Loung Ung, the film follows a biographical tale based on Ung’s memoir about the Khmer Rouge Regime. Despite being funded and produced by Netflix, the film has also had a wider theatrical release in Cambodia, holding its world premiere in Siem Reap. Per Jolie’s own words, “We’re making this first and foremost for Cambodia.”
Jolie’s name and star power definitely draw attention to the film in its own right. Understandably so, as First They Killed My Father serves as a follow-up to her World War II biopic, Unbroken, which received mostly mixed reviews although it was praised for its technical achievements. However, reviews of First They Killed My Father coming out of Telluride and the Toronto International Film Festival have been more positive, if still concerned with questions of ideology and presentation.
Jolie’s evident skill in directing war pictures remains caught up in her earnestness to project an audience’s focus towards cultures that are not her own. Many shots depict life precisely through Loung’s eyes – when it was relatively carefree and when that freedom was taken away – while others overlook Cambodian streets, campsites and treks. The film plays at being both “documentary” and character assessment. It is a much more immediate and experiential drama. There is a fantastical nature accompanying Loung’s journey that is expanded upon in dream sequences, but she is otherwise not always allowed to see the bigger picture.
Admittedly, Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography comes across as almost too literal and cold, appearing more heavy-handed than it needed to be. It doesn’t help that the film itself is languidly paced, with spurts of violent behavior cutting the stillness. But to an extent, as it is a story of innocence being stripped back little by little, with a lack of dialogue and plenty of observations on Loung’s part, the technique is a sensible choice. That sensibility gives way to depicting violence in a thoroughly confronting fashion, but violence itself is a strong stimulant, regardless of cinematographic merit. The real strength – and consequently, deepest sadness – of the film is in its ability to chip away at Loung’s spirit, as much as she tries to grasp onto things she holds dear. There are situations Loung perceives to be pockets of hope despite her dire circumstance (to put it lightly), which lets her persevere. Those facets of the story are easiest to access.
Jolie’s focused, empathetic approach to the country that she sought to depict – including hiring local talent and crew to film the Khmer-language project – is obvious in its indulgence in the emotional. But the movie is hyper-composed, shot to a precision that reviewers have found questionable for good reason. The “prettification,” as The New York Times calls it, seems unwarranted in a film about mass murder. At the same time, the film’s aesthetic choices could be justified by virtue of its first-person point-of-view of a child. What does innocence look like, and how far can imagination take you despite ugly realities you must face?
If anything, First They Killed My Father is clearly deeply personal — that title — particularly for the real-life Ung. Upon the announcement of the official Oscar nomination selection, she said, “We [Jolie and Ung] were together when we received the news and it was very emotional. This has been a long journey for me, and while it is personal, it is also reflective of the experience of millions of Cambodians. We are very proud to be representing Cambodia as this year’s selection and share this moment with the country.”
Producer Rithy Panh, whose autobiographical documentary The Missing Picture was nominated for an Academy Award, has also expressed excitement towards the submission. Particularly, he reiterated the universality of the film’s message: “Cinema also is a way to talk about the resilience and dignity of human beings.”
As for Jolie herself, her statement simply describes the “humbling experience” of working with Cambodian locals and putting a story she cares about out there. Trying to let the film speak for itself is the best tactic a Western director could bring to a film like this, even though it’s difficult to separate Jolie’s stardom from the project entirely. Despite being less technically proficient compared to Unbroken, its empathy and emotional signature is clear and maybe it’s not such a bad thing if that’s what Jolie is most known for.
First They Killed My Father is streaming worldwide on Netflix.