They must have made quite a pair: the statuesque film star from Los Angeles, and the small, slight returnee, cycling together through rural Cambodia. Angelina Jolie was in the country shooting “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”, her first starring role in a blockbuster, though she had won an Oscar the year before for her supporting role in “Girl, Interrupted”. Loung Ung was travelling in Cambodia 20 years after she had escaped with her family; her memoir of surviving the Khmer Rouge, “First They Killed My Father”, had just been published.
They came together, says Loung Ung, because Jolie bought a pirated copy of her book on the street and wanted to meet her. An unlikely friendship formed. “We stopped somewhere,” says Loung Ung. “Not a restaurant – just a Cambodian house. We were offered some food, some chicken with ginger. We saw a scrawny chicken run by, and then we heard this crack, and that was dinner. The owner of the house saved the best parts for Angie – the gizzards and intestines. And she ate them. She knew how to be respectful.” When Jolie expressed an interest in turning her memoir into a film, Loung Ung did not hesitate, though she says she would not have readily trusted it to any other non-Cambodian. But Jolie, she says, “is Cambodian in her spirit, in her connection to the country and in her family”.
“First They Killed My Father” is the opposite of Jolie’s usual blockbusters. It is modestly budgeted, with few special effects, despite being the biggest film ever shot in Cambodia. Instead of big Hollywood names, it stars Khmer-speaking non-professional actors. Instead of escapist popcorn fun, Jolie presents viewers with atrocities that took place decades ago in a country that most Western viewers would struggle to find on a map.
Yet from this grim subject-matter Jolie has made a quietly revelatory film that shows war and genocide through a child’s eyes without a single false or cloying note. Most of the film is doggedly realistic but Jolie makes outstanding use of dream sequences and bursts of surrealism: when the Khmer Rouge complete their first march through Phnom Penh, the camera suddenly turns upside down, as a Khmer dancer in a lion-head mask moves sinuously among the soldiers. These occasional breaks with reality highlight how bizarre the events must have seemed to someone too young to understand – too young, at first, to be as frightened as the adults. Suddenly Loung Ung has to flee her home and abandon her possessions. Her parents have to work in the fields; the family eats insects to survive.
In the wood-panelled library of her elegant, sprawling Los Angeles estate, Jolie admits it’s a hard sell. On screen her defining trait is her chilly poise; in person she has an ethereal, swan-like grace and a lively mind. Her home feels warm and inhabited, though she admits she’s still in the process of moving in (“You may have heard there’s been a sudden split,” she says, her only reference to her recent, much-publicised separation from Brad Pitt), and echoing through the house are the quick footsteps of some of her six children. “This isn’t the kind of movie people rush out to see,” she says. “I tried to make it a film not just for people who are interested in history: I tried to make it visually interesting. I want to help people sit through something that’s hard for them to sit through.”
In that she succeeded, for two main reasons. First, she elicited extraordinary performances from her actors, particularly Srey Moch Sareum, the nine-year-old lead, whom Jolie and her casting team found in a charity school in Phnom Penh; and Komphaek Phoeung, an interpreter, author and occasional actor who plays the family’s father. In his face viewers can see bewilderment, fear and his heroic efforts to maintain a brave face for his children.
Srey Moch Sareum, says Jolie, “figured out what some actors never figure out. Her job was to think of things. Her job was to watch things...I told her I never need to see tears. I don’t want you to laugh if you don’t feel like laughing. She did it all naturally.” The average viewer may know little about Cambodia or the Khmer Rouge, but by keeping the focus on Loung Ung and her family, she makes the film their story: the viewer is invested in their fate.
Second, the world in which these actors move is fully realised, thanks to meticulously designed sets, interiors and costumes. For this Jolie credits the hundreds of Cambodians who made up the cast and crew. Many of them remembered the war, she says, and “they tell you exactly what it was like...Everything [in the film] is based on someone’s experience. They talked us through everything.”
But at the centre of the film is Loung Ung’s experience. She was five years old when the Khmer Rouge took over and ten when she escaped to Thailand with her brother and sister-in-law. The regime killed both of her parents, two sisters and 20 other relatives. Eventually she resettled in Vermont, and today runs a restaurant and brewery in Cleveland, Ohio, with her husband. Jolie says she was taken by the way that Loung Ung’s memoir “invites you into the experience of being a family in a time of war. She writes beautifully and honestly, and never tries to be more intellectual than her readers.” The two jointly adapted it for the screen.
Jolie’s involvement with Cambodia stretches back almost two decades. She was granted citizenship in 2005. Raised in Los Angeles, coming off a wild youth and heading into the peak of her career, she learned in Cambodia the tribulations of refugees and the dire poverty of the developing world. When she talks about Cambodia, her cool persona turns to genuine warmth. Cambodia, she says, “connected me” to the world: “I had my awakening there.”
She adopted her eldest son, Maddox, from a Cambodian orphanage 15 years ago. He is listed as an executive producer of “First They Killed My Father”, and gave his name to her Cambodian charity, the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, housed on her property in the country’s remote north-west. The foundation focuses on education, health care and the conservation of forests and wildlife.
She has of course come in for a fair amount of criticism for her work in Cambodia – a film star using a poor country as a prop to make herself look generous and involved – but almost none of it comes from Cambodians themselves. In conversation she is realistic and humble about what an outsider like her is able to accomplish. She financed her foundation, but Cambodians run it: she has a career elsewhere, after all.
Like experienced NGO-types, she understands how difficult it is to solve problems discretely: success in de-mining a forest, for instance, produces an increase in poaching and deforestation. Conservation activists must also persuade people to act against their own immediate interests. “We see people come in with immediate cash, which solves a short-term need but is harmful longer-term. What we need to do is make a case for the steady long-term view.”
One of her co-producers, Rithy Panh, perhaps Cambodia’s best-known film-maker, says, “I’m used to producing when people just show up, shoot and go home. Angelina is not like that. She has a strong, intimate relationship with Cambodia...It gave her a bright view of what people can become.”
That may seem odd for a country best known for having survived a genocide, but Cambodia is resilient: travellers will find few more forward-looking, pragmatic, optimistic countries. Four decades after the Khmer Rouge’s fall, it is less hesitant to confront its past than it once was. And yet, the subject still makes the government jumpy. When Jolie was trying to get permission to make the film, she told government officials that “this isn’t a film about politics. We don’t want to bring up the horrors of the past. We want to help move the country forward: it’s just a story about a Cambodian family.”
Rithy Panh says they plan to take the film to every province (few Cambodians live in villages with movie theatres, and even fewer subscribe to Netflix, which produced the film). Most Cambodians were born after the Khmer Rouge’s fall; Rithy Panh says that the film will help them understand a past which people are still reluctant to discuss. “People will watch and they can talk. They can say to their children, ‘That’s how we lived’…[Jolie] directed the film, but it’s a Cambodian story.”