Real LifeTravel

Why We All Need to Watch This Movie About Cambodia


First They Killed My Father deepens understanding and helps bring compassion to the connected world in which we live.

**Trigger warning: This talks honestly about what we came to learn and witnessed in Cambodia. There are some heartbreaking and ugly facts but ones you should know more about. 

Mom Says

Do me a favour.

Open your hand up and run your fingers over your palm.

What do you feel?

Are they soft and smooth? Are your nail beds clean and well groomed? Manicured even?

Or are they rough? Do they feel worn and full of callouses? Have they been working  all day & showing signs of it?

If they are smooth, and if you were living a regular life in Cambodia in the seventies, there was a high probability you would have been killed.

It’s hard to believe that Pol Pot and the Killing Fields happened in our lifetime. The Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in April of 1975 after an on-going civil war between them and the Nol government. The U.S. (on the support side of Nol & involved in the Vietnam War) were carpet bombing villages throughout Cambodia trying to eliminate Vietnamese bases and the Khmer Rouge. Civilians (confused by the reasoning behind the bombings) joined & accepted the Khmer Rouge radical beliefs because they were so angry with the Americans. When the Nol government and the US evacuated, the capital was immediately overtaken with Khmer Rouge guerillas & Pol Pot’s regime. They forced you to leave your house, your money and all your possessions without question.

How quickly life changed in an instant for those in Phnom Penh. Photo credit: Netflix

Pol Pot wanted to create a communist society in Cambodia in which money was gone, personal possessions were a sin and the hierarchy of society was destroyed.

If you were educated and a professional, you were either killed instantly, tortured or sent out into the fields to work under threats of violence, machine guns and rebel forces everywhere.

Did you know that a population the same size as Toronto (2 Million people) were killed during his regime? 2 Million people.

Blunt force was promoted over bullets in order to save money. Children were beaten against trees, their skulls smashed. People were thrown (still alive) into pits to suffocate from the weight of dead bodies that followed.

It was a horror of horrors.

The dark shadow that remains

As we travelled around the world this past year, we gave a word to every country we visited. A word that described (to us) the pulse, or the feeling we got when we immersed ourselves in that country’s culture and energy.

Cambodia’s word was hard to define as we could only describe it as a Shadow.

I couldn’t pick out initially what felt odd about Phnom Penh but I could feel it.

And then you started realizing what was wrong. As you look around, there is nobody old. Hardly anyone over the age of fifty. A generation almost entirely lost.

Many buddhist monks were killed in the genocide.

A heaviness comes with such a violent act of genocide that brings with it an unhealthy aftermath. Orphans or child soldiers who were taught to fight, and kill at young ages now had to move on to living out life in Cambodia or as refugees, from a place where the value of human life had been reduced to nothing. There wasn’t any PTSD counselling in the years following. There is a scar there that remains, raw and red. Human trafficking is still a huge issue and we saw more than we wanted to of incidents of dirty old men taking advantage of sex tourism with young Cambodian girls & boys. It felt disgusting and still a reality there.

Why it is important to watch First They Killed My Father

In the world of over-saturated information, we have become de-sensitized to the atrocities that play out elsewhere.

This film (originally a book by Loung Ung & now available on Netflix) is worth watching because it gives you greater insight into how something so horrific could happen so quickly. It helps you see the way in which the Khmer used confusion, starvation, and fear to gain authority in the country. It shows how people living normal everyday lives suddenly lost everything for no reason except geography.

It also sheds light on the trauma that the Cambodian people must deal with as they move on with their lives. The people we met were so kind but carry with them heartbreak that we can’t even comprehend.

Compassion needs to lead the way

You never know anyone else’s story, especially in the case of refugees coming from war torn countries. We truly have NO idea what they witnessed or experienced in their home country.

Too often commentary is on refugees and what they are taking. What about what they have lost?

The next time you hear someone referring to refugees in a negative light, say something. Let compassion lead the way over judgement. Nobody wants to leave their home. Take a moment to imagine what life was like before they lost everything.

What if this was you?

Humanity needs a shift & we are the ones to be part of that. Will you be one to help point it in the right direction?

Corruption still exists in Cambodia, it is something we all witnessed as we paid additional fees to cross the border

Dad Says

There is an extraordinary aftermath of a generation obliterated. As a traveller, you hear that everyone gets sick in Cambodia.  Why?  Because there are no elders  teaching the next generation to value of washing their hands.  There is a vacuum where traditional music would be played, but nobody knows the songs anymore.  Mass gaps in learning because by removing a generation, you lose everything they could pass along; knowledge, stories, love, pastimes.

There are great films that tell this story, first and foremost was The Killing Fields, released in 1984.  A powerful piece that stands the test of time and was well deserving of the awards it won shining a light on these atrocities.  The Missing Picture and S-21 are documentaries that are powerful in their own way. And now First They Killed My Father. What Angelina Jolie does is First They Killed My Father is brings to life a story that needs to be told, forcing people to stare ugly in the face and realize that these acts of warfare are happening in the same world which we live in.  ln our lifetime, the killing fields happened.  Rwanda, Bosnia, the Kurds, and now the Rohingya in Myanmar.

We are proving that, as a species, we are capable of such great highs but we can also stoop so very low, more barbaric and savage than any who have come before.  We can stop it by realizing it, facing it, and fighting it.  We cannot pretend it isn’t happening there, or it could very well happen here. Talk about it with your children, and stop with the ‘poor souls wouldn’t understand’ garbage.  Bambi’s mom died and we made it through.


Jenn & Chris

The author Jenn & Chris

Jenn & Chris are #TeamPowell Two adventurous souls who love the off-the-beaten path part of life. Mom & Dad to two kooky kids, they focus on living life without regret, living in kindness and living in the now.