In her films “In the Land of Blood and Honey” (2011), “Unbroken” (2014), and now “First They Killed My Father,” Angelina Jolie tells true stories of people caught up in historical catastrophes and subjected to powers beyond their control. They endure horrendous assaults against their individuality and emerge from the nightmare with their humanity vindicated.
In her relentlessly tragic, sometimes lugubriously epic “First They Killed My Father,” individuality is not so much at stake as is the family — the basic social unit — which is the target of a tyranny determined to usurp that bond. Based on the memoir by Loung Ung (Sreymoch Sareum), the film shows a child and her family trying to survive the genocidal, crackpot communist Khmer Rouge regime. An army of Marxist fanatics seeking to reduce everyone to a single, mindless mass serving the proletarian revolution through ruthless social engineering, they took over Cambodia in 1975. By the time an invading Vietnamese army defeated them in 1978, nearly a quarter of the country’s population had perished.
Ung’s account begins when she is 5 and is uprooted with the rest of her large, middle-class family from their comfortable home in Phnom Penh and driven by the victorious rebels from one wretched labor camp to another. Her father (a soulful Kompheak Phoeung) had been a captain in the Cambodian army and he instructs his children to identify themselves as workers. As the title indicates, the ruse does not spare the family from experiencing the same misery as millions of others. Anchored by their resolute mother (Socheata Sveng), the family clings together until death and the despotic whims of the new rulers tear them apart.
Jolie does not dwell on the atrocities, though a horrifyingly ironic battle scene near the end contains some gruesome imagery. Instead she focuses on the eyes and face of Ung, portrayed by Sareum in a haunting performance reminiscent of Brigitte Fossey in Rene Clement’s “Forbidden Games” (1952) or Ana Torrent in Victor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive” (1973). She witnesses what Jolie shows, her response an expression of wonder or, more disturbingly, resigned comprehension. Jolie will then lift the camera up in a crane or aerial shot, revealing ant-like columns of enslaved people laboring or being led off to execution. Or she will flash back to scenes of better days, when the family was happy and seemingly safe, and the nightmare to come was beyond imagining.
FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER
Directed by Angelina Jolie. Written by Jolie and Loung Ung, based on the book by Ung. Starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheata Sveng At Kendall Square and available on Netflix. 136 minutes. Unrated (constant terror, endangered children, graphic war violence). In Khmer, with subtitles.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.