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Jolie’s ‘First They Killed My Father’ a powerful film

Dan Webster

If you have a Netflix account, one of the movies worth screening was co-written and directed by none other than Angelina Jolie. Following is my review of the film, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Angelina Jolie was born to be a movie star. The daughter of Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight, Jolie has starred in 40-odd movies and been the face of the “Lara Croft” and “Maleficent” franchises. She even won an Oscar of her own, Best Supporting Actress for 2000’s “Girl, Interrupted.”

But that’s only part of the story. Next time you go shopping, study the tabloids lining the check-out stands. The lead story is likely to be about Jolie’s divorce from Brad Pitt, or her Mia Farrow-like relationship with her six kids, just as in year’s past the headlines were about her breaking up Pitt’s marriage to Jennifer Aniston. Or even before that her wild time with previous husband Billy Bob Thornton, whose blood she reportedly wore in a vial around her neck.

And let’s not even get into her lip-locking relationship with her brother.

Since 2007, though, Jolie has been crafting an alternative life story, that of serious filmmaker. That year her documentary “A Place in Time” was released. Then came her first feature, 2011’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” her 2014 big-budget adaptation of the Louis Zamperini story “Unbroken” and her 2015 art film (with soon-to-be-ex Pitt) “By the Sea.”

Now we have “First They Killed My Father,” a film that opened both on Netflix and in a small number of theaters in the top movie markets. Based on a memoir by the Cambodian author/activist Luong Ung, “First They Killed My Father” tells the story of Luong’s family and its struggle to survive following the fall of Cambodia’s government to the Khmer Rouge.

Luong, her parents and her siblings were among the thousands of residents of Cambodia’s capital, Phmon Penh, who were forced to leave the city. Told that they were in danger of being bombed, but that they would be gone for only three days, the city-dwellers headed for the country side. It was only then that, inexorably, they discovered that this was to be their new life – scrambling for shelter and food, working in the fields, being indoctrinated into Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s new society and watching as, gradually but with extreme prejudice, anyone other than mere workers were taken away, never to be seen again.

And the first one of Luong’s family to be taken was her father.

Director Jolie documents all this with inordinate skill. She has been criticized for how she portrays the beauty of the Cambodian countryside, but that merely underscores the irony of war: As in the scene in “All Quiet on the Western Front” when Lew Ayrds reaches for a butterfly, horror can’t expunge natural beauty. In a weird way, it often enhances it.

Jolie’s best effect, though, is how she tells Loung’s story in a slow reveal, avoiding any overly dramatic moments until nearly the end. Instead, she keys on her cast – especially on young Sreymoch Sareum, who plays Luong – and in doing so gives the characters more meaning than mere headlines could ever express.

Which is something that Jolie herself is all too familiar with.

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