Cambodians flocked to Buddhist pagodas last week to pay respect to the spirits of their ancestors during the Pchum Ben holiday, but some also communed with the ghosts of the past in a different way: through film.
The new Hollywood movie “First They Killed my Father,” directed by Angelina Jolie and based on a memoir by Khmer Rouge survivor Loung Ung, was released in theaters on September 8, and has been playing to packed houses.
The film was the first Hollywood film to be shot entirely in the Khmer language, on location in Cambodia. At screenings attended by VOA Khmer, local viewers responded strongly to the film’s narrative, whispering animatedly to family members when onscreen moments reminded them of their own lives, and laughing at the screenplay’s few moments of levity.
Many wept openly at the film’s portrayal of the brutality and privations of the Khmer Rouge regime, which saw more than 1.7 million Cambodians perish due to executions, forced labor, and starvation. But they burst into applause when the film ended on a hopeful note, with Loung and four of her siblings reuniting to perform a traditional Buddhist memorial ceremony for the spirits of their parents and dead sisters.
After the screenings, theatergoers said they were moved by the film’s emphasis on the endurance of family relationships across time and space. Some said it helped them better understand their own ancestors, living and dead, and planned to use the story of Loung as a jumping-off point to discuss their own family history.
Two-thirds of Cambodians were born after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and often struggle to comprehend the magnitude of their parents’ and grandparents’ suffering. It is equally hard for parents to convey the scope of history to their children, said Nheb Ngi Veng, 62, who watched the movie with his wife and two sons.
As a young boy in peaceful 1960s Cambodia, he found it impossible to believe his mother’s tales of the cruelty of Khmer Issarak guerilla fighters marauding through the countryside. Today his own sons, in their 20s, are equally incredulous about his stories of the Khmer Rouge regime, during which he did heavy forced labor in the countryside.
“It still sounds unbelievable to me that Cambodia ever fell so low like this,” he said.
His wife, Suy Siv Teng, 58, who emerged from the theater gripping the hands of their two sons, said the movie had brought back chilling memories for her. In particular, she was struck by the deep emotion in the scene when Loung’s mother ordered her children to leave her and pretend to be orphans. The move saved their lives, but she would die without seeing them again.
“Talking about the film and remembering it again, right now, I feel goosebumps,” Ms. Siv Teng said, rubbing her arms.
In April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh, she was living in the capital as a student. When communist soldiers ordered the city’s inhabitants to leave immediately, she thought the evacuation would be temporary. Instead, she did not return for years.
“I told my sons when we were watching the film how I brought nothing but some books for studying, because I was afraid I would not be able to keep up with my class when I came back,” she said. “Unfortunately we could not come back and I was ordered to throw away the books.”
In interviews, Angelina Jolie has emphasized that a key goal of “First They Killed My Father” was to capture a child’s eye perspective on war, famine and genocide.
Preap Lina, who is in her 40s, spent the formative years of her childhood living under Khmer Rouge rule. Last week she brought 11 of her children, nieces, and nephews to see the film, saying she was glad to finally have the chance to show them what her early life was like.
“I just want to remind them of those experiences I used to face when I was young, which the young generation thinks could not have happened,” she said.
One of her daughters, 22-year-old Rath Panhanita, said her mother often urged her to toughen up. After watching the film, which showed a young girl forced to labor in rice paddies and plant grenades as a child soldier, she said she could understand that perspective better.
“Mom wanted us to see that generation, how difficult it was, wanted us to come to understand it, so we will not be so fussy,” she said. “That means that in a difficult situation, we must overcome it, like they did in their generation.”
The scene that depicts Loung’s father being marched away by soldiers, ultimately to be executed, also made a vivid impression on Ms. Panhanita.
“I love my father just like that girl loved her father,” she said. “Imagine how I would feel if my father was taken away like that.”
Not everybody was eager to see their painful experiences replayed on the big screen. Chan Lyda, 28, an online marketer, said the Khmer Rouge era was still so raw for her parents that they refused to come see the film with her.
But even without their presence, the movie gave her a new sense of empathy for what they had gone through, she said. Her parents often told her about how difficult their early lives were, about the years when they had no possessions but their “bare hands.” But to her, these were just stories.
Ms. Lyda still does not have a good sense of what happened to her parents during the Khmer Rouge years, or how many of her family members died. But after seeing the film, she was clear about what the experience must have been like.
“If I were under that regime, I would not be alive,” she concluded. “It was miserable. People were forced to work very hard and starved.”