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February 19, 2018
Anti-Communist Film Snubbed At Oscars
cambodia river boat

Photo Caption: River markets from Thailand to Cambodia are a common feature of life in South East Asia. (Photo Credit) Harvey Enrile on Unsplash

Anti-Communist Film Snubbed At Oscars

By Joseph Hammond

Another political controversy is swirling around the Oscars, which has been engulfed by charges of racism and sexism. This one involves the snub of Angelina Jolie’s stark portrayal of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal genocide in Cambodia, “First They Killed My Father.” Hollywood insiders say the film’s strongly anti-communist storyline may have been unpopular with Academy Award voters.

Instead, the academy nominated “A Fantastic Woman” (Chile), “The Insult” (Lebanon), “Loveless” (Russia), “On Body and Soul” (Hungary) and “The Square” (Sweden).

“First They Killed My Father,” produced and directed by Jolie, is based on the memoir of Loung Ung who as a young girl experienced the depravity of the communist regime first hand. Ung described the reign of terror that occurred after Pol Pot and the communist Khmer Rouge swept to power in 1975 during the regional chaos the followed the end of the Vietnam War. Forcibly relocated to the countryside Ung’s family is slowly broken through a mixture of murder and propaganda in keeping with the Maoist vision of the Khmer Rouge who are attempting to create a communist paradise. The film was shot on location with some survivors of the event that are portrayed in the film. Due to its usage of the Khmer-language and other factors the Cambodian government made the film its official consideration for an Oscar.

The film was critically well-received — earning an 88% critical approval score on the aggregate review site RottenTomatoes.com. Perhaps signalling the Academy’s uneasiness with the material, many reviewers downplayed the film’s politics.

A story on the film’s resonance with Cambodian-Americans published by the Voice of America, an organization created to broadcast an American anti-communist message around the globe, did not mention the Khmer Rouge’s communist ideology. The Los Angeles Times review of the film doesn’t mention communism as all describing the Khmer Rouge merely as “Ideological zealots”. However, the same review does mention – down to the hundred thousandths, the exact tonnage of bombs dropped on the country by the United States during the struggle against communism in Southeast Asia. That bombing is central to the film only its absence – the Khmer Rouge claimed that Cambodia’s capitol city is about to be bombed by the U.S. to get the people to evacuate the capitol and move to the country-side for communist re-education and to begin the genocide.

Until its fall in 1979, the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot oversaw the deaths of roughly 2 million of their citizens, including much of the intelligentsia, Buddhist monks as well as Muslim and Christian. Members of the ethnically Vietnamese were also a particular target.
“ I am disappointed the film was not nominated [for an Oscar] “ says Vincent Lee, a Cambodian author and Khmer Rouge genocide survivor, “I understand why it was not nominated…it is a very hard story to make into a film.”

Just days before the Khmer Rouge seized the capitol of Phnom Penh in 1965, Lee’s father missed an opportunity to flee the country with his family aboard a U.S. Marine helicopter. Instead, he endured four years of starvation and de-humanizing treatment at the hand of the Cambodian communists. Vincent himself escaped the Cambodian holocaust by crossing through the sort of landmine filled jungles depicted in the film — with his 64-year old grandmother. Last year he published the memoir of his experience, Father Missed His Plane.

If any Lee feels the film didn’t go far enough in portraying a regime that sent thousands of “enemies of the state” to be beaten to death – in order to save ammunition.

“For those of us who lived through, survived or knew about the Khmer Rouge period, the film didn’t have enough of an impact, not enough detail…when I sat down to watch it I prepared a box of tissues just in case but — nothing happened.

The film is the first major international production to look directly at the Khmer Rouge genocide since Roland Joffé’s Oscar-winning 1984 epic “The Killing Fields.”