By Timothy Williams
Films matter for people’s understanding of historical events, particularly helping people understand situations which are so far removed from their everyday experiences that they are nearly incomprehensible. “Hotel Rwanda” has strongly shaped popular perceptions of the genocide in Rwanda, while “Schindler’s List”, “Inglorious Basterds”, “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” and others have substantially contributed to the popular imagination of the Holocaust. Most of these films have been critiqued significantly for various reasons related to their historical authenticity, their Hollywood sensationalism or restrictive perspectives, but their impact on popular discourse and understandings is indisputable.
In this context, “First They Killed My Father. A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” is a new film intervention in the memoryscape directed by Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie and co-written by her with genocide survivor Loung Ung, whose story the film tells. The production for Netflix will most likely allow for broad swathes of the international public to come into contact with this important period of Cambodian history for the first time. The film allows the viewer to see the unfolding of the Khmer Rouge regime through the eyes of Loung Ung as a young girl. The audio of the film is in Khmer with sprinklings of French, subtitled in English, and this seems to suggest a degree of authenticity. And indeed, the film does succeed in capturing the everyday experiences of people living under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Before coming to the story of Loung Ung and her family, the film sets the scene by portraying the US bombing of Cambodia on the fringe of the Vietnam War. This beginning is important as it explains to an audience who may be new to the topic the complicity of Western powers in destabilising this country, as well as showing the horrible experiences that allowed the Khmer Rouge to become so strong. After this the story of Loung Ung unfolds slowly and gradually. Interestingly, the true horror of the regime is not immediately clear, and the viewer only comes to understand what is happening bit by bit as the protagonist discovers this herself, allowing the viewer to experience the Khmer Rouge regime as it emerges.
Eventually, Loung Ung is recruited to become a Khmer Rouge soldier herself, then also wearing the emblematic red kroma, a traditional scarf. The film continues to portray her as a victim of the regime, as she is, but her recruitment highlights the complexity of roles that people took on during the regime. Many people were victims and perpetrators at once in this incredibly coercive environment. That the film manages to bring in these nuances of responsibility, agency and victimhood so succinctly is important for an understanding of this period.
It remains to be seen how this film will be received by the film-watching public, but I would hazard a speculation that it will significantly impact the global public discourse on the Khmer Rouge genocide for years to come. The popular imaginary of this dark time in Cambodian history will likely become more widely recognised, and with Jolie’s well-crafted film important nuances of history and Cambodians’ experiences can enter into this understanding.
By Johanna Mannergren Selimovic
The Sarajevo Film Festival is held every August, bringing red carpet glamour to the once besieged city as well as opportunities to reflect upon the difficult past and present. I have been enjoying the festival several times over the last few years, and usually pay special attention to the sections on ‘Dealing with the past’ and ‘BH Film’. The festival is a fascinating ethnographic site for exploring how film as a medium engages with issues concerned with memory and the violent heritage of the past. This year I particularly enjoyed the film Nostalgia by Bosnian/Austrian film maker Ervin Tahirovic. The film is an autobiographical account of Tahirovic’s return to the town of Foča in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina, from where he fled as a child during the 1992-95 war.
The narrative is informed by his ill-at-ease. He portrays himself as a refugee yearning to return ‘home’ but he is also scared and a stranger. He seems to be stumbling around, trying to trace his memories of a lost childhood. He visits his old school, the river where he used to swim, his family’s former home. He runs into some ultra-ethnonationalists who boast about war criminals living in the town. By accident – it seems – he joins an event commemorating those who were killed during the war, which turns into an aggressive encounter as present inhabitants disrupt the demonstration.
Eventually Ervin will make some connections, and there will be some seemingly redemptive scenes, for example when an old couple who used to be friends with his grandparents teach him the traditional way to grind coffee. But these moments do not really turn his journey and his film into a tidy narrative that moves towards some kind of emotional closure. Rather his experiences come across as disjointed pieces and the chasm does not close between his violent war experiences and the lack of acknowledgement of this past in the present. Towards the end of the film he reflects that there should be a commemorative plaque at every place of violence. On his own house there should be a plaque with the words that would read something like: Here lived Ervin Tahirovic. He was hunted like a dog from his home. His stuff was stolen, sold at a flea-market in Montenegro.
I carry these bitter words with me as I leave the packed, air-conditioned cinema and enter the afternoon sun that is beating down on one of Sarajevos new, blank squares. They are words, I think, about the intangible heritage of traumas in the past. They are words that speak of the presence of absence.