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First They Killed My Father: A Cambodian story of ‘talent, art, love and beauty’

Angelina Jolie and some of the cast of First They Killed My Father wave during a press conference at the film’s premiere at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.
Angelina Jolie and some of the cast of First They Killed My Father wave during a press conference at the film’s premiere at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. Hong Menea

First They Killed My Father: A Cambodian story of ‘talent, art, love and beauty’

To understand a story, you need to write it first . . . we are lucky, in Cambodia, we are artists. Writing books, music, and films to express our feelings is good.

Rithy Panh, or Pou Rithy, as those familiar to the brilliant Cambodian filmmaker call him, pronounced those words at a touching press conference launching the Cambodian Premiere of First They Killed My Father (FTKMF), by Angelina Jolie.

I’m following Pou Rithy’s advice.

Over the past couple of weeks, I had the privilege of putting some of my regular duties teaching at Pannasastra University of Cambodia on hold to work closely with Pou Rithy and the dynamic local teams to welcome Angelina Jolie, Ung Loung and their international crew to present FTKMF to a Cambodian audience – months before it will be shown in the US and globally.

On screening day, we sat in the mystic Angkor grounds, surrounded by temples built hundreds of years ago and symbols of the best Cambodia ever produced; about to watch the worst the country has gone through. Enveloped by humid warmth, the murmur of crickets and soft lights revealing the majestic Elephant Terrace, we watched.

The screening and premiere event were unique, both because of the setting and because of the people gathered for this special screening: victims of the Khmer Rouge, perhaps even former Khmer Rouge, their children and our friends from home and abroad.

FTKMF was deeply powerful because it managed to convey the emotions of a complicated story, through the eyes of a child – including the silences and blurred memories of voices and images that shape children’s experience of the world. Memory, happiness and suffering at its simplest. The minimal dialogues and absence of additional plot allows us to focus on the essential.

Many wept, others smiled and some even laughed. We all remembered.

To those who lived through the Khmer Rouge, to Pou Rithy, to my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, this film unearths memories. It reopens wounds for some, brings carthasis to many and opens up essential discussions between parents and children – as close family friends and fathers bong Phloeun Prim or bong Sok Visal eloquently wrote in the hours following the screenings.

I, as a son and grandson of Khmer Rouge regime victims, stand somewhere between the experience of the survivors, and the comforting ignorance of those who did not live through these events. I discovered the burden of the past through my relatives, which provides me with both the desire and luxury of distance to engage with the more positive stories written in Cambodia today, on the ashes of tragedy.

To those unfamiliar with the stories of Cambodia, the film invites them into the history of the country via its darkest episode. And yet, once they set foot through these doors, those curious enough to watch and listen are led to discover another Cambodia.

“Cambodia is a country of talent, and art, and love, and beauty”, Angie – as the Khmer team refer to her with affection – said at the press conference. “What Cambodia contributes [to the world] is not war”, she added.

A few days later, these words still resonate in my heart and mind.

I, like many second-generation Cambodians born abroad, was introduced to Cambodia through The Killing Fields film and half-stories told by our relatives of life under Pol Pot. Many of us are now returning or feeling an urge to do so, to discover what lies beyond the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. Talent, art, love and beauty might well be the medicine to trauma and suffering.

The FTKMF team, led by Pou Rithy and Angie have repeated over and over, and in the words of the latter, “This is not a film [only] about Cambodia, but with Cambodia”. The 3,500 Khmer actors and supporting cast, the largely Khmer crew led by co-director Pou Rithy, are prime examples of this talent.

“You do not realise how talented you are, do you?” said Angie to Sreymoch, the girl playing Loung, as she stared intensely in the eyes of her idol. With those words, the acclaimed Hollywood actress and director can not only inspire a little girl to trust her talents, but a whole industry that is key to writing Cambodia’s story.

I believe that is the biggest impact First They Killed My Father can have on this country.

Throughout my two years in Cambodia, I have discovered the best of this country. I was introduced to a thriving arts and entrepreneurial scene, and learned the names and stories of those who live by Pou Rithy’s wise words on a daily basis, writing new stories for their country.

Bong Visal and his trailblazing video and music work; Pou Rithy and his students – Dara, Phally, bong Rithea, bong Bora and so many more reviving the local film industry and opening it up to the world; activists, bloggers and radio hosts Rithy, Bopha, Catherine or Chhaya; and of course, my own younger brother and graffiti artist Fonki. All these individuals are re-opening the door to a Cambodia many thought long forgotten.

Whether it is conscious or not, all these creative youth, their older counterparts and many more are using their talents to fuel a healing process in full blown – one hopeful film, song, painting or story at a time.

Still, modern Cambodia is crippled by corruption, its civic spaces continue to shrink, its human rights record continues to deteriorate, and its political landscape resembles something from another world of Netflix dramas in which deception and murders are rife.

But just as the Khmer Rouge is a bleaker part of our modern history, and just as we must write about it in order to never forget, let us also celebrate the best our people offer to the world: “talent, art, love, and beauty”.

Vanaka Chhem-Kieth was the press officer for the Cambodia premiere of First They Killed My Father.

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