2017 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: The world premiere of Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” received a rapturous standing ovation from the Telluride audience. With many Academy members on hand, Jolie delivered her most personal and successful achievement to date.

Based on the harrowing best-selling memoir of the same name by Loung Ung, “First They Killed My Father” tells the devastating story of the 1975 Cambodian exodus of its capital city, Phnom Penh, overseen by the Angkar section of the Khmer Rouge – the Communist part of Kampuchea. We see the graphic and abhorrent events through the eyes of seven-year-old Loung (Sareum Srey Moch), as her large, middle-class family finds passage out of the only home she has ever known.

Their journey is laborious and incessant, walking barefoot and carrying all of their possessions on their backs while being tormented and driven out by the Angkar. Deprived of food and other necessities, Loung and her family are assigned to labor camps, where even the children are used to grow rice and vegetables for the soldiers on the front who are fending off the Vietnamese army. The Angkar – whose philosophy is that “it’s better to kill an innocent man than leave an enemy alive” – views themselves as the savior and liberator of its oppressed people, trying to purge them of Western civilization’s influence. The children are trained to be warriors, and Loung watches three of her older siblings be sent off to fight against their will for a regime that has persecuted their countrymen.

Little by little her family is fractured, and Loung must begin to fend for herself, as she tries to escape the horrors of the conflict through fantasy-like dreams and daydreams. Her vivid and quixotic reveries become dark realizations as she can only imagine what has happened to her loved ones. The film becomes a test of human will, and the ability to survive against insurmountable odds and dangers.

First They Killed My Father” is fiercely intense and exceptional storytelling.  It is the film Jolie was destined to make. It is a deeply personal effort, and her work will serve as a history lesson for generations of Cambodians to come. Full of rich and emotionally draining incidents, Jolie’s film is ferociously trenchant. Anthony Dod Mantle‘s cinematography is the true star of the film – one of his best moments comes when Loung is trapped amid a mine field, and we are left to witness the calamity from above as the camera pans out softly.

Jolie admirably tells the story of Loung Ung, who chose to remember so that others could never forget, never losing sight of the fact that it was one woman’s story, but also the story of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge.

“First They Killed My Father” is distributed by Netflix and will be available there on September 15.

GRADE: (★★½)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHJATbVHc1g]

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