Following its world premiere in Cambodia in February, the cinematic adaptation of Loung Ung’s genocide survivor memoir First They Killed My Father was released to global audiences on the Netflix platform in September 2017. Press reports of the February premiere noted that the movie’s vivid images had allowed the genocide survivors in the audience to relive their traumas and experience catharsis. The affective power of the movie arises in part from its faithfulness to Ung’s memoir — in particular its form as a microhistory of her experiences under the Khmer Rouge.
While standard histories look at the big picture by studying large aggregates of people over extended time scales, microhistories are intimate and focus on the experiences of individuals or small groups of people over shorter time scales. As Carlo Ginzburg (1993) suggests, both history and microhistory are needed to give us our best view of the past: the “constant back and forth between micro- and macrohistory, between close-ups and extreme long-shots,” together give their readers “the comprehensive vision of the historical process” as well as the realization that “reality is fundamentally discontinuous and heterogeneous” (p. 27).
While standard histories of human aggregates — communities, peoples, nations — offer continuous narratives of events and present these aggregates as seemingly homogenous wholes, microhistories expose these aggregates as actually consisting of distinct individuals who each have their separate timelines and life histories (Lim, 2013, p. 44). The cinematic adaptation of First They Killed My Father effectively portrays this distinction with a scene set in the Khmer Rouge collective farm where Loung Ung and her family were sent to work. The aerial shot from above — the perspective of history — presents the enslaved villagers as indistinguishable black-clad workers moving in disciplined lines around the paddy fields; the ground-level shot — the perspective of microhistory — reveals these seemingly-identical workers to be distinct individuals who are doing their best to avoid getting beaten or murdered by the cruel Khmer Rouge cadres.
Following Ginzburg’s advice, the best way to understand the Khmer Rouge period hence comes from reading a combination of the standard histories of the period — for example, Ben Kiernan’s The Pol Pot Regime and David Chandler’s Voices from S-21 — and the microhistories of the genocide survivors. The latter is a growing genre. With the passage of time, increasing numbers of genocide survivors have decided to break their silence and give voice to their painful memories.
Apart from Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, notable books in this genre include François Bizot’s The Gate, Pin Yathay’s Stay Alive, My Son, and Ly Y’s Heaven Becomes Hell. Recent additions to this genre, many of which are self-published memoirs, include Jennifer Lau’s Beautiful Hero, Lang Srey’s The Smell of Water, and Seiha Chea’s Escape from Democratic Kampuchea. With the maturing of self-publication platforms like Amazon’s CreateSpace, other genocide survivors who may have previously been intimidated by the difficult requirements of publishing houses may find the confidence to use these self-publication platforms to write and share their microhistories with the world.
Microhistories give us a clear sense of the fears and terrors experienced by their authors during their moments of crisis, and enable us to imagine what would have been like living through such experiences.
Some critics like Leshu Torchin have wondered about the function of such memoirs: “If the individual does speak for a collective, which collective — and to whom?” However, that’s not the function of microhistory. What microhistories do is highlight to their readers the heterogeneity and the unique life stories of the individuals who constitute the collective. When individuals speak through their microhistories, what they invite their readers to recognize is that all the other individuals in the collective have their own life stories which they may have yet to share with the world.
Microhistories have also raised methodological concerns for professional historians. As Dominick LaCapra (1998) observes, survivor memoirs and testimonials are usually written only “after the passage of many years,” which raise concerns about the accuracy of the memories recorded by the survivors (p. 11). For historians, such microhistories are problematic, especially given their “tendency to go with memory’s flow, mingle fact and fancy, provide ingratiating personal anecdotes or autobiographical sketches, and moot the question of the relation between history and fiction” (p. 16).
However, the allure of microhistories — as first-hand records of living memory — for historians and other readers, stems from their being the “the phenomenological recollections of the individual’s affective engagements with past events” (Lim, 2012, p. 123). Unlike second- or third-hand accounts, microhistories give us a clear sense of the fears and terrors experienced by their authors during their moments of crisis, and enable us to imagine what would have been like living through such experiences. Such imaginative reconstruction is further facilitated when, as in the case of First They Killed My Father, microhistory is translated from text to cinema. While a different director might have been tempted to expand the focus of the movie beyond Loung Ung’s perspective, the movie’s director Angelina Jolie has honored the microhistorical form of the book and preserved the affective power of Ung’s narrative from print to screen:
“Jolie’s masterstroke is that she never departs from the gaze of her young protagonist. There’s little sense of time passing — it could be months or years, given Ung’s inability to find any grounding in the destroyed farmland, labor camps, and military bases she’s swept through. It’s easy to understand every decision she makes to survive, even her terrifying recruitment as a soldier who lays mines in Cambodia’s dense jungle.”
With the selection of First They Killed My Father to be Cambodia’s official submission for the Best Foreign-Language Film category in the 2018 Academy Awards, the genre of the genocide survivor memoir will gain greater prominence within Cambodia and the global Cambodian diaspora. Consequently, this could have the effect of encouraging more genocide survivors to write and publish their microhistories.
One powerful moment in First They Killed My Father captures how the continued publication of microhistories brings us to the realization that there are in effect uncountably more microhistories waiting to be written. This is the scene following Loung Ung’s escape from the Khmer Rouge camp where she had been forced to train as a child soldier. Exhausted and traumatized, she joins a flow of refugees. The camera first lingers on her face, and then pans out to reveal the faces of the other refugees, each of whom also look exhausted and traumatized. The realization that dawns on the viewer is that all these other refugees must have also suffered terrible ordeals — and that their experiences must have been distinct and different. We have seen what happened to Loung Ung; what about the others?
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Brzeski, P. (2017, September 18). Oscars: Cambodia Selects Angelina Jolie’s ‘First They Killed My Father’ for Foreign-Language Category. Hollywood Reporter.
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Chea, S. (2016). Escape from Democratic Kampuchea. Bloomington: Balboa Press.
Ginzburg, C. (1993). Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know about It. (J. Tedeschi & A. C. Tedeschi, Trans.). Critical Inquiry, 20(1), 10-35.
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Lau, J. H. (2016). Beautiful Hero: How We Survived the Khmer Rouge. Santa Ana: Lotus Book Group.
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Lim, A. C. H. (2017, March 2). The Persistence of National Memories of Trauma. IPP Review.
Ly, Y. (2000). Heaven Becomes Hell: A Survivor’s Story of Life under the Khmer Rouge. (J. S. Driscoll, Ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies.
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Sims, D. (2017, September 15). First They Killed My Father Is a Surprising, Devastating Triumph. The Atlantic.
Srey, L., and Srey, C. B. (2016). The Smell of Water: a twelve-year-old soldier’s escape from the Khmer Rouge army, and his determination to stay alive. Phnom Penh: Singha Books.
Torchin, L. (2017, September 14). Angelina Jolie’s new Cambodia movie is powerful but Hollywood can never escape itself entirely. The Conversation.
Ung, L. (2000). First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. New York: HarperCollins.