How do you depict a nightmare? How do you re-create — and do justice to — events completely outside ordinary human experience?
Filmmakers who represent the Holocaust have dealt with this dilemma for decades, and Angelina Jolie faces it in "First They Killed My Father," her examination of the nightmarish horrors of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime. The result are always impressive but not emotionally compelling, a film whose integrity you admire but aren't swept away by.
Impeccably made by a team that includes Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and Cambodia's top filmmaker, Rithy Panh, as a producer, the movie certainly works hard to do everything right.
Taken from the memoir subtitled "A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers" by Loung Ung (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jolie), "First They Killed My Father" is accurate to the terrifying 1975 story of what happened when the Khmer Rouge took over a country undermined after the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on it during the Vietnam War.
Ideological zealots, the militarized Khmer movement determined to destroy everything modern and/or Western and create a theoretically classless agricultural society where everyone would be turned into a peasant.
An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died in this turmoil, roughly a quarter of the population, and Jolie has made sure that the re-creations of the period are as accurate as possible.
The film is not only shot in the Khmer language with some 500 Cambodians working as part of the production team but the cast, including some 3,500 background actors, is entirely Cambodian as well.
Jolie herself has intense personal connections to the material, having adopted her son Maddox from a Cambodian orphanage, being awarded Cambodian citizenship by royal decree, and, according to an article in Vanity Fair, being a close friend with co-writer Ung.
One of the things "First They Killed My Father" does well, aided by a Marco Beltrami score, is create the sense of dread, unease and disorientation that 5-year-old Loung and her family felt as their lives were forcibly ripped from their moorings and cast adrift in a pitiless sea.
Before that dislocation, however, we see the happy, middle-class life led by Loung, her five siblings, her army captain father (Phoeung Kompheak) and her warm and loving mother (Sveng Socheata) in the country's capital city of Phnom Penh.
Then on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered the city, chanting "unity, unity" and "we are all Cambodians." Disheartened by what America had done, people felt, as someone in the film says, "If there is a chance to rebuild, we have to take it."
Rebuilding, however, was not on the mind of the Khmer Rouge leadership. Under the pretext that Phnom Penh must be evacuated because an American bombing was imminent, the capital's residents were told they had to leave their homes at once.
But rather than the promised return after three days, Loung and her family were never to go home. They were part of a massive relocation program, taken deeper and deeper into the countryside to a series of labor camps the film meticulously re-creates.
Extreme regimentation was the order of the day at these locations, hair cut short and all clothing dyed the same drab shade of dark green, with loudspeakers and party leaders blaring sentiments like, "It is better to make a mistake and kill an innocent person than leave an enemy alone."
The Khmer Rouge, which called itself Angkar, did all it could to break the normal bounds of society, telling children, "Angkar is your mother and father now," and not hesitating to break up families to further its aims.
Loung herself, played by Sareum Srey Moch, is portrayed as a young woman with impressive presence. "First They Killed My Father" shows us everything — the litany of depredations visited on this child, her siblings and her parents, through her eyes. Sareum can handle the screen time, but focusing the film on a character who is more watcher than actor creates a kind of distance that does not help things.
Though this story couldn't mean more to Jolie, she hasn't been able to make it mean as much to us. Scrupulous and perhaps constrained at the thought of overdoing things, Jolie has allowed the enormity of the story to get the best of her, creating a film that is more disturbing than moving.
In the final analysis, "First They Killed My Father" does not get under the skin like the documentaries of her producer, Rithy Pran, haunting films like "S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine" and the Oscar-nominated "The Missing Picture."
For those wanting a more affecting, even overwhelming sense of the terrors of Khmer Rouge rule, those would be the place to go.
"First They Killed My Father"
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Playing: Landmark, West Los Angeles