The Internet is ablaze with the news that Angelina Jolie last weekend spoke out for the first time about her very public divorce from Brad Pitt. Regrettably, much coverage glossed over the reason for her interview in Cambodia with the BBC: the premiere of her new film, “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.” It’s based on a good book about the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that tells us, in the way only great stories can, something about being human, about terror, rage, hate, and forgiveness in the heart of a child.
Many Christians remember with mixed feelings Jolie’s film version of Laura Hillenbrand’s huge bestseller, “Unbroken.” The movie showed a remarkable man’s stunning story of courage and survival at sea and in a Japanese prison during World War II, but she reduced the last third of the book about Louie Zamperini’s conversion to Christ, subsequent ministry, and forgiveness of his captors to a couple of lines on screen just prior to the credits.
It’s not clear what approach to faith Jolie will take with “First They Killed My Father,” due out on Netflix later this year. The book’s author, Loung Ung, like most Cambodians a Buddhist, was five years old in 1975 when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge turned the country into a Marxist agrarian hell.
The Communist Life Is Misery
The book, released in 2000, tells the story of Ung and her family as the Communists herded 2 million citizens out of Phnom Penh at gunpoint onto forced labor camps. Historians estimate that between 1975 and 1979, when the Vietnamese ousted Pol Pot, the regime killed approximately 1.7 million people, a quarter of its population, through execution, starvation, disease, and overwork. It was probably the most totalitarian regime ever attempted.
After two years, in 1977, Ung’s father was hauled off and executed. Her mother soon gathered her four children together and sent all but the youngest away in different direction. As the wife of a capitalist reactionary, she couldn’t have hoped to keep them all together and survive. She told them to walk until they got to a children’s work camp, then say they were orphans.
Ung initially refused, until her mother barked at her: “I don’t want you here! You are too much work for me! I want you to leave!”
Ung and her sister, 10, ended up at one of the hundreds of camps scattered across the country, where they tended vegetable gardens and soaked in the propaganda of Angka, the name of the revolutionary organization. Ung’s book doesn’t offer much background for these camps, but historians and other memoirists have described them as pathetically ineffective in one sense and diabolically potent in another.
Pol Pot’s regime saw children and youth as blank tablets upon which they would write the future of Democratic Kampuchea. Its Four Year Plan called for universal literacy and setting up schools for children all over the country. As schools they were a joke. The Khmer Rouge indoctrination programs, on the other hand, transformed children.
They yanked children, most from poor rural areas, out of their families to live in camps where cadres taught them discipline, hatred, and obedience to Angka alone. “Angka is the mother and father of all young children, as well as all adolescent boys and girls,” went one saying.
Children Easily Converted to Soldiers for Class Warfare
Lacking strong ties to the old society and taught to resent its inequalities, children were vulnerable to the lessons of class warfare. “It is the youth of today who will take up the revolutionary tasks of tomorrow,” Pol Pot said in a 1977 speech, for youth are the “most receptive to revolution.”
“They ordered us to attend meetings every night where we took turns finding fault with each other, intimidating those around us,” reported one young survivor in “Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields.” “We survived by becoming like them. We stole, we cheated, we lied, we hated ourselves and each other, and we trusted no one.”
They became the fiercest and most brutal members of the Khmer Rouge cadres and soldiers. A particular sign of loyalty to Angka was to denounce or even beat one’s own parents for making sarcastic comments about Angka or some similar offense. Cadres usually preferred to eliminate enemies during the night, as it amplified the sense of terror, but when a child helped beat a parent to death the cadres held the execution during the day. “I’m not killing my parents,” the child would shout, “I’m killing enemies of the Revolution!”
It’s as if Pol Pot had been reading Orwell for all the wrong reasons. “It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children,” he wrote in 1984. “And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak—‘child hero’ was the phrase generally used—had overheard some compromising remark and denounced its parents to the Thought Police.”
Ung became such a child of Angka that she was chosen to train as a soldier, even though she was underage. But the memory of her family kept her from despair in the shadow of so much death, or from losing herself in the abyss of revolutionary doctrine. Ung and her older brother eventually escaped to Vietnam. In 1980, a Catholic parish in Vermont sponsored them into the United States. After college she became an anti-landmine activist and now, 17 years after the book, the movie has arrived.
Still the Nightmares Haunt Me
It’s a wonderfully told story, despite the implausibility of anyone being so stunningly insightful as a child or able to recall such detailed memories. Memoirists often take a little liberty in that regard. I’m looking forward to Jolie’s movie.
Jolie’s connections to Cambodia go back to her role as Lara Croft in “Tomb Raider,” which was filmed in the country. She also adopted her first child, Maddox, from a Cambodian orphanage. “I didn’t want to see a child go through war, I wanted to know what a child felt, what they focused on, what they saw,” she says in a trailer. “I’m doing this for [Ung], for her family, for Cambodia, and very much so also for Maddox, so he knows who he is and who his people are.” Jolie added that the film “has to be in the end a love letter to Cambodian people.”
I hope she has succeeded, but I’m also waiting to see what the movie says about what it means to overcome hate. Toward the end of the book Ung relates how a crowd of angry peasants in grim silence execute a captured Khmer Rouge soldier with a hammer and rusty knives. Drawn by the prospect of revenge, she crawls so close she’s spattered with blood. The solder’s death, she realizes, won’t bring back any of her murdered family or friends, but neither does she feel much pity: “But it is too late to let him go, it is too late to go back. It is too late for my parents and my country.”
Is it too late for Ung herself? In the epilogue she describes the gut-wrenching pain of reliving it all in writing the book. Her activism, she writes, is absolution: “As I tell people about genocide, I get the opportunity to redeem myself. I’ve had the chance to do something that’s worth my being alive. It’s empowering, it feels right. The more I tell people, the less the nightmares haunt me. The more people listen to me, the less I hate.”
She tells, in short, a story of seeking resolution without forgiveness. We’ll see how Jolie handles that one.