Siem Reap City – Watching the premiere of Angelina Jolie’s new film “First They Killed My Father” in the shadows of the ancient ruins of Angkor on Saturday night, Riem Vet was transported back to his teenage years living under the Pol Pot regime.
“It reminds us of the pain,” the 55-year-old said.
“For me, this film is very close to what the Khmer Rouge did to me because they never cared, regardless of whether we were young or old,” he said. “They treated us like animals.”
Mr. Vet was one of dozens of survivors who watched the first screening of Ms. Jolie and French-Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh’s adaptation of Loung Ung’s best-selling Khmer Rouge survival memoir, alongside the king and queen mother.
The highest-profile film about the Khmer Rouge since 1984’s “The Killing Fields,” the Netflix production depicts how the life of Loung’s family—branded “new people” by the Khmer Rouge—falls apart once the ultra-communists overrun the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime and attempt to turn the country into a sprawling mass labor camp.
The film, and audience, see the regime through the eyes of a child, a point of view that only added to the challenge of vividly recreating the horrors of life under the Khmer Rouge.
“It was hard, of course, telling the story through the eyes of what a child sees,” Ms. Jolie said during a press conference before the screening, where she was joined by Mr. Panh and Ms. Ung.
“You can’t have a scene where there’s a bunch of men explaining the war. You need to have it from the child’s point of view and so the child picks up pieces.”
“There were scenes that were very difficult because you’re not supposed to hug in front of the Khmer Rouge, you’re not supposed to cry in front of the Khmer Rouge, you’re not supposed to say mother or father in front of the Khmer Rouge,” she added.
“So these things were very limited, but hopefully in the film that’s explained so you can feel…how they had to hold a lot of emotion publicly, which is really difficult.”
The film is rare for offering lighter moments—of Loung playing with her siblings and talking with her father—alongside depictions of death and destruction faced by Cambodians during the three years, eight months and 20 days of Pol Pot’s rule.
Another child survivor of the Khmer Rouge, Youk Chhang, now the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said that it was the moments depicting beauty amid the grim reality of life that hit him the hardest.
“It shows another side of the history—you see the smile. When you see the smile of the child, it breaks my heart, it brought me to tears,” Mr. Chhang said.
“You see the vegetables, you see the fruits, you see the beautiful forests. It breaks your heart because it happened in a tragic period,” he added. “I have never seen a Khmer Rouge film with a smile in it. It’s the first Khmer Rouge film where there’s beauty in it.”
At the back of the screening area, the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) set up a tent where survivors could receive treatment if they found themselves overwhelmed by the graphic beatings, mine explosions and murders in the film.
“Looking at the back of the survivors, most of them were crying,” said Malin Pov, a TPO psychiatric nurse. “It makes them remember the past. Some survivors may not sleep that night or suffer bad dreams.”
Nobody sought out treatment after the film. Still, she said, she thought the film would be “helpful for all Cambodians.”
Krak Thy, 67, who was still seated after Ms. Jolie had exited the screening through a media scrum and into an awaiting minivan to cheers, said he was left thinking about the family members he had lost to the regime.
“It reminded me of seeing so many Cambodians die at the time, including five family members,” he said.
However, he believed that the film could help ensure that Cambodia never sees such brutality again.
“What I cannot forget is they never gave us enough food. For me, I want there to be more films to show the young generations to prevent it from happening again,” he said.
“Please, don’t keep this concealed.”
His old friend, Mr. Vet, agreed and said that the pain of the past was worth reliving if it protected future generations from the same fate.
“It reminds me of the pain,” he said. “But it’s a good reminder, that in the future no one can forget this serious pain we suffered.”
odom@cambodiadaily.com, wright@cambodiadaily.com
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