How Angelina Jolie's New Film Captured a Child's View of Horror and Heartbreak

FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER - Still 2 - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Netflix

Director Angelina Jolie wanted audiences watching First They Killed My Father, based on Loung Ung's memoir set during the Cambodian genocide, to see through the eyes of a child — young actress Sareum Srey Moch, who gives a remarkably expressive performance as Loung.

In the words of its Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), the Netflix film, Cambodia's foreign-language Academy Award entry, is "an attempt, as full-on as possible, to project how a child will perceive these incidents around her, which were everything from beauty and happiness in the beginning to unadulterated chaos and darkness. That's the psychology behind the way the camera had to work."

The majority of the Netflix movie, which was filmed on location in Cambodia, was shot by Dod Mantle himself, who used handheld cameras, and by Bela Trutz, who operated a Steadicam.

At one point, Loung appears hungry and terribly sad, and then she has a memory of her dinner table at home — that recollection is "bombarded with food and colors and lushness," says Dod Mantle. "It represents yearning for the joy of life." In contrast, flash-cuts of her parents, which appear later in the film, "are dark and haunting and brief, colorless, brutal," he explains. "Every single color in this picture resonates certain feelings."

In the devastating scene when soldiers come to take Loung's father away, "you see what she sees," Dod Mantle continues. "She peeps into the house and [sees] the farewell scene between her mother and father. Her father then comes to her, and the camera is low, initially, in her POV. The father is looking straight down, very close to the camera. He's almost looking at the audience. You suspect it's one of the last moments in her life that she is going to see her father alive."

As the scene goes on, he says, "we had to break out of the subjective point of view, because when they are embracing, the camera has to come on the side. It's a very close embrace against the light with flare, and I think flare has the connotation of memory and sadness, and yet beauty. The last shots are a very gentle shot of her looking at him, a gentle track back from them. And then we see the father walking away, a different way than when he's going to work."

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.