Propelled by the power of hearing their stories in their own language, some Cambodian American audience members fled in tears from a screening of First They Killed My Father, the Angelina Jolie film adaptation of an English-language memoir of a 5-year-old girl who witnessed the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975.
The movie uses the Khmer word "pa" for "father" a word the Khmer Rouge banned as foreign-sounding and elitist and replaced with "puk," which the regime preferred as a purer Khmer word for "father."
Other words recalled other horrors —“-srek khlean” “ohh sangkhoeum” and “kosang” are Khmer words which mean “hungry” “hopeless” and “build or rebuild” in Khmer, the language of Cambodia. During the Khmer Rouge era, the first two carried the weight of a brutal social transformation that killed an estimated 2 million. “Kosang” in the black-is-white world of dictator Pol Pot meant near-certain “execution.”
“When Cambodians hear these phrases they will just cry because it is our story,” said Panha Nith, a 45-year-old Battambang native who now works as a cosmetologist in Leesburg, Virginia, some 70 kilometers from a screening of the film based on the memoir by Cambodian-American Loung Ung. “They forced us to change from ‘pa’ and ‘mak’ to ‘puk’ and ‘mae.’ It took a while to get used to that.”
Jolie attended the first screening, which was in Cambodia in February, and Netflix began streaming its production in September. Panha Nith decided to wait for a traditional theater screening, where other people would also attend. She saw the film in October at Montgomery College, just outside Washington, D.C. at a community screening and panel discussion designed to bring first and second generation Cambodians together to revisit the Khmer Rouge era, the first chapter in the refugee stories of many Cambodian-Americans. Many who attended the screening came as a family. The most recent screening was on Dec. 9 in Lowell, Massachusetts, home to the second largest Cambodian community in the United States outside California.
If the movie, the first major Khmer-language Hollywood-standard movie with English subtitles, had been in English, Cambodians would “still understand the story but some meaning and nuances will get lost and it may not feel as tragic,” said Panha Nith, whose own story of childhood survival and a father who disappeared mirrors that of Loung Ung’s.
Other movies, The Killing Fields (1984), andThe Missing Picture (2013) have focused on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era, but not completely in Khmer.
About thirty minutes into the screening of the Oscar-submitted Jolie film, Panha Nith left, crying. “At the scene where the children were given porridge, and it was so little … it reminded me of our situation where there was barely any rice in the porridge,” she said. “I can’t even describe it — I had to add leaves and gave it to my younger siblings, willing to starve myself.”
Panha Nith's 10-year-old daughter Beaunita Nith attended the screening with her mother even though she has watched the film three times on Netflix. She said her mother, whom she calls “mak” at home, had prepared her for a possibly traumatic experience.
“She always kept on telling me” that her father was a teacher, “and that they didn’t find him and that my grandma almost died, too, like a lot of people almost died,” said Beaunita Nith, a fifth-grader who can speak some Khmer.
She liked hearing the language as she followed Loung Ung's experience because the story felt closer to her mother’s experience. “This is a story of a Cambodian but if it is (told) in a voice of an American, that won’t make any sense,” said Beaunita Nith.
Cambodian-American Sarah Kith, 46, is a convener at the Library of Congress who lives in northern Virginia. She had not read or streamed First They Killed My Father because the story too closely parallels her own, rekindling difficult memories.
Sarah Kith attended the screening with three generations of her family, including her grandmother who barely speaks English. Hearing Khmer words such as “srek khlean” (hungry) and “ohh sangkhoeum” (hopeless) triggered vivid memories of Sarah Kitch’s five-year-old self.
“While (the book) was written in English, the way it is played out in the movie is … very culturally appropriate,” said Sarah Kith. It was written “from the perspective of a young girl so there are many lenses that are superimposed or rather filtered through. But it quite accurately captured (events), so we get to re-experience it in a way that helps us heal.”
For Heng Kim, 81, of Arlington, Virginia, the Khmer words in the film such as “kosang” (rebuild/reeducation) brought back memories of his near execution in the Ba Phnom district of his native Prey Veng province. If he hadn’t escaped to Vietnam, his daughter’s story would have echoed that of Loung Ung.
Many of the Khmer words would be difficult to express in English because of what was happening at the time; “kosang” carried the connotation of “execution.”
“As Cambodians, these words hit us hard,” said Kim Heng. “I understood parts of The Killing Fields, and had to rely on translation for some parts. But for this movie, the Khmer-language is so real I couldn't bear it. It gave me headaches.”
The Killing Fields, the first Khmer Rouge-themed movie to attract international acclaim —including Oscars for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for the late Cambodian Haing S. Ngor, and best cinematography and best film editing — was shot mainly in English on locations outside Cambodia, which was still engulfed in civil war. First They Killed My Father featured an all-Cambodian crew of over 3,500 actors and was also filmed completely in Cambodia's Siem Reap and Battambang provinces.
Visal Sam, 45, was born in Battambang city, one of the First They Killed My Father locations. Like Loung Ung, in the movie, she too lost her father who was a former military official during the Lon Nol regime.
Visal watched the movie with her husband and her four children.
Her daughter, Vichethyda Sam, 19, and the oldest of her children said that although she understood the film without reading the English subtitles, the movie made her want to learn more Khmer and connect with Cambodian-Americans her age.
“I’m glad that the movie was in Khmer,” she said.
Building a sense of family and community were the main goals of Kunthary de Gaiffier, 61, one of the event organizers.
She was pleased that more than 200 people came to the Friday night screening, and that many were second-generation Cambodian-Americans with their parents.
Kunthary de Gaiffier said that she believed the film may open intergenerational dialogue among Cambodian-American families, conversations that may help with trauma healing.
“After the screening of this movie, they start to open up, at least those who dare not discuss in the past now at least dare to ask,” she said."
Kunthary de Gaiffier, who was in France during the Khmer Rouge era and has two adult Cambodian-American children, says the film may prompt second-generation Cambodian-Americans to learn more about Cambodian history, language and culture. “They can relate to family experience and can become more curious to learn more and ask more questions that they dared not ask for many years.”