Telluride: Angelina Jolie's 'First They Killed My Father' Takes Fest by Storm

Jolie's fourth feature directorial effort appears to be eligible for the best foreign language film Oscar, should Cambodia choose to submit it.
Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival
'First They Killed My Father'

Watching a 136-minute foreign language film at 9:30 a.m. on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend may not sound appealing to everyone, but don't tell that to the massive number of people who lined up today outside of the Telluride Film Festival's Palm Theatre — some for as long as three-and-a-half hours — to see Angelina Jolie and her new film First They Killed My Father.

Jolie's fourth feature directorial effort, like her three prior — In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011), Unbroken (2014) and By the Sea (2015) — is very ambitious and very dark and could be very hard to market. Adapted by Loung Ung and Jolie from Ung's memoir of the same title, First They Killed My Father will be simultaneously released by Netflix in select theaters and on its streaming platform on Sept. 15 and is a Khmer-language period piece about a family torn apart by the Khmer Rouge. It primarily is told from the perspective — literally and figuratively — of seven-year-old Ung, who is played incredibly by young Cambodian Sareum Srey Moch.

What sets the film apart — at least according to the consensus of industry critics and tastemakers who caught its first screening — is that it engages its audience and is more than just a history lesson or genre exercise or tribute to its principal character. (Early reviews have mostly ranged from favorable — see THR's — to very favorable.) Those filmgoers who are open to giving it a chance won't be sorry they did so. And that bodes very well for its Oscar prospects, which lie, first and foremost, in the best foreign language film category.

True, Jolie hails from Hollywood, but she holds dual citizenship with Cambodia, from which she adopted one of her children, Maddox; and this is a film shot and set in that country. It relies almost exclusively on local talent and is in the country's official language, so it meets all of the Academy's criteria for a foreign film Oscar submission. In other words, Cambodia would be crazy not to submit this one.

But the film might register even beyond the foreign-language category: It seems to me that, if the film's rollout is handled as well as it was at Telluride, then Jolie's direction, Ung's adaptation, Moch's performance and the film's score all could be in the awards conversation. After all, the Academy has previously fallen head-over-heels for other films about very similar subject matter: Roland Joffe's 1984 The Killing Fields, which landed seven Oscar noms, winning three awards; as well as for another foreign-language film told from the perspective of children who lose their innocence to violence, 2003's City of God, which landed directing, adapted screenplay, cinematography and film editing noms.

First They Killed My Father also bears a certain resemblance to another film about children caught up in war, Beasts of No Nation, which Netflix distributed two years ago. That film was snubbed by the Academy, possibly because of mixed feelings about whether or not Netflix is good for the film industry. Those concerns remain, and it will be interesting to see if the company's association with First They Killed My Father does more to help or hurt the film. Other hurdles the film may encounter: Some may dislike the suggestion that Richard Nixon is to blame for the many years of Cambodian conflict that followed America's entry into the region; some may worry about how Jolie evoked such emotional performances from such young and inexperienced actors (a concern fueled by her recent Vanity Fair interview, although Jolie disputed that article's characterization of how she worked with the young actors); and some may have trouble reading the rather small subtitles or simply find the film too long.

"We're making this first and foremost for Cambodia," Jolie emphasized to the Telluride audience during a brief post-screening Q&A, adding that today's screening technically isn't the film's world premiere since she has screened it in Cambodia for a native audience, many of whom had never seen a movie on a big screen. Jolie explained that she first visited Cambodia many years ago on a trip that "changed my life," during which she also bought Ung's book for $2 on a street corner and fell in love with it. She later returned to do humanitarian work, including landmine prevention efforts, and, after befriending and consulting Ung, adopted a Cambodian orphan, Maddox, who is now 16 and who worked with Jolie on the film and joined her at the screening. Jolie recounted that she waited to make the film until Maddox was old enough to be a part of it. "I wanted my son to know where he comes from," she says.

Jolie said that making the film in Cambodia and with Cambodians was special for her and her collaborators on different levels. "There was a lot of PTSD on set," she acknowledged, in reference to both participants and passersby who were triggered by hearing fake landmines and seeing people dressed like the Khmer Rouge. "We had therapists on set," she further explained. Ung, who joined her during the Q&A, added, "We also had spirit houses." Of Moch, her film-stealing young leading lady, Jolie said, "I'm so impressed by her," adding, "She decided she would give that much."

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