Angelina Jolie was on a break from filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia 17 years ago when she bought a $2 paperback from a roadside cart. Titled First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung’s best-selling memoir detailed the nightmare she endured from ages 5 to 9 after the brutal Khmer Rouge emerged from the jungle to overthrow Cambodia’s military government.
Fast-forward to Sept. 1, when First They Killed My Father got a standing ovation at its Telluride Film Festival premiere. This coming Monday, the drama will make its appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival, and on Sept. 15, the Netflix-funded project will join the streaming service. The morning after that, Jolie and Ung’s movie opens the fifth annual Cambodia Town Film Festival (CTFF) in Long Beach. To mark Cambodia’s national Ancestors Day holiday, there is also a Chapman University screening on Tuesday evening that is open to staff, faculty and students only.
The script was adapted from the book by Ung and Jolie, who also directed and co-produced the film. Her adopted Cambodian son, Maddox Jolie-Pitt, was an executive producer, as was Ung. Indiewire claims, “It could be Jolie’s best movie to date, a tense drama with cinematic depth to spare.” (The Oscar-winning actress previously directed In the Land of Blood and Honey, Unbroken, and By the Sea.) Many who have seen First They Killed My Father have also praised Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography and the young actress making her feature film debut, Srey Moch Sareum.
She plays Ung, the second youngest of seven children born to upper-middle-class parents in Phnom Penh. When the Khmer Rouge army storms the city in April 1975, the girl and her family flee their comfortable lives for the countryside, where they must hide their bourgeois roots and the patriarch’s past as a high-ranking official. The family eventually settles in a labor camp, where they make do roasting crickets in the darkness of night.
The film depicts horrors that won’t be exposed here so moviegoers can experience their full impact. But growing up the way she did helped to shape Ung into the human-rights activist she is today.
Of course, it would not be a Jolie-Pitt story were there not a tabloid-feeding controversy. That arrived on July 26, when Vanity Fair published a story claiming First They Killed My Father casting directors placed money in front of Cambodian children—including Sareum—from “orphanages, circuses and slum schools,” asked them what they needed, then pulled the cash away to provoke a reaction.
Jolie and the film’s other producer, lauded Cambodian documentary filmmaker Rithy Panh, denied the report, claiming young actors were merely taking part in an improvisational exercise and that no child was ever harmed or misled. Vanity Fair stood by the story, adding that Jolie’s lawyer tried without success to get the casting bit removed from the online article.
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The mission of CTFF is to showcase the diversity of the Cambodian experience through films. And these films are best shown in Long Beach, where 20,000 residents of Cambodian descent represent 4 percent of the population, making it the “Cambodian capital of the United States.” The official name of a mile-long business corridor on Long Beach’s eastside is Cambodia Town, but it’s also known as Little Cambodia and Little Phnom Penh. (See my former colleague Michelle Woo’s cover story “The Healing Fields of Long Beach’s Cambodia Town,” Nov. 29, 2012.)
This year’s festival is bookended by private events: the Filmmakers and Sponsors Welcome Reception on Thursday, Sept. 14, and the Award Ceremony on Sept. 17. Open to the public are the CTFF Kickoff Party on Sept. 15 at Sophy’s Restaurant and the standup performance the Khmers of Comedy on Sept. 16 at the Art Theatre. Of course, anyone can also buy tickets to the screenings of narrative features, documentaries, shorts, student films and animated movies, all of which will screen at the Art Theatre on Sept. 16 and 17.
In addition to First They Killed My Father, the roster of narrative features includes: director Davy Chou’s Diamond Island, in which a country boy is lured to a sprawling, ultra-modern paradise filled with Cambodia’s privileged urban youth; Turn Left Turn Right, in which filmmaker Douglas Seok tells the tale of a modern young woman in Phnom Penh acting ambivalent toward her father’s deteriorating health; and Jimmy Henderson’s The Forest Whispers, about the inhabitants of a cursed village being made unable to leave by their uncompromising chief.
Feature-length documentaries include: Chris Kelly’s A Cambodian Spring, which chronicles the tragic events that followed recent land-rights protests; Mark J. Bochsler’s work-in-progress Surviving Bokator, which follows a genocide survivor trying to use an ancient sport to heal a nation; Christopher Lockett’s Until They’re Gone, about landmines and the people who remove them; and Robert H. Lieberman’s Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia, about the people of the nation seeking to reclaim their culture in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Multiple short-film programs round out the festival.
Cambodia Town Film Festival at the Art Theatre, 2025 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 270-4181; cambodiatownfilmfestival.com. Sept. 15-17. Screenings, $8-$14; all-inclusive passes, $60-$200. First They Killed My Father screens Sept. 16, 11 a.m. $14. Visit website for other films and show times. CTFF Kickoff Party at Sophy’s Restaurant, 3240 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach. Sept. 15, 7 p.m. $25. The Khmers of Comedy at the Art Theatre. Sept. 16, 9 p.m. $12.
OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.