WRITING PARTNERS. Angelina Jolie, left, director/co-writer of
the film First They Killed My Father, and
co-writer/human-rights activist Loung Ung, right, pose for a
portrait during the Toronto International Film Festival in
Toronto. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
From The Asian Reporter, V27, #19 (October 2, 2017),
Angelina Jolie on her Cambodian epic and the
power of family
By Jake Coyle
AP Film Writer
TORONTO — Angelina Jolie arrives for an interview with the
familiar harried air of a parent who has just barely managed to
withdraw from her children, all six of whom she’s left having
breakfast upstairs in their Toronto hotel suite.
"The reason I was a little late is they made me change,"
Jolie says, smiling. "They thought what I was wearing was too
It’s just another example of the extreme balancing act of
Jolie’s life, one which combines global celebrity with
humanitarian devotion, A-list stardom with sober filmmaking,
glamour, and family. "I actually went to a premiere once with
pee on me," she says. "It was when the kids were little and I
just got peed on at the last minute. There was nothing to do but
But Jolie’s latest film, the powerfully immersive Cambodian
genocide drama First They Killed My Father, represents a
kind of amalgamation of Jolie’s multifarious life. Her initial
interest in Cambodia came when she arrived — in a much earlier
life — to make Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2000. She
became infatuated with the country and its people, began
goodwill work for the U.N.’s refugee agency, and adopted her
first child, Maddox, from Cambodia.
First They Killed My Father, which has hit Netflix and
select theaters, is based on Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir. The film
hues close to Ung’s perspective as a five-year-old girl living
with her family in Phnom Penn when the Khmer Rouge march in,
force the residents to flee, and then imprison Ung’s family in a
labor camp, brutally indoctrinating them to a classless society.
Some two million (nearly a quarter of the country) died during
the Khmer Rouge’s four year reign of terror.
The film isn’t just a shattering view of war through a
child’s eyes, it’s intended as a cathartic healing for Cambodia
itself, and a personal journey into the past of Maddox’s
countrymen. The 16-year-old, credited as an executive producer,
collaborated with his mother on the production, which was shot
in Cambodia with local actors, both professional and not.
"I said to my son Maddox, who’s known Loung his whole life,
when you’re ready, we should tell Loung’s story. But we have to
tell it together," Jolie says. "We had this script for a few
years and he came up to me and said, ‘I’m ready."’
Jolie’s heavily watched appearance at the Toronto
International Film Festival was her most public since she filed
for divorce from Brad Pitt after 12 years together — two of them
married. Jolie acknowledged it’s been a difficult period of
transition and that her filmmaking has been put on pause. She
has an acting gig lined up (Maleficent 2) but the
yearslong work of directing has for now been tabled.
"I’ve needed to take over a year off just to be with my
kids," Jolie says. "All I’ve done is some of my humanitarian
work and my teaching. I’ve done nothing else for over a year.
Now that they’re all older, the decisions really have to be made
together because they home school and they’ll be with me and
they have a lot of opinions about what to do."
Now that her children are getting older, Jolie hopes the
other children will work with her, too. But, she assures, Maddox
had to work hard, and wouldn’t have earned a credit if he
"I asked Maddox and Pax if they’d work with me again. I think
all the kids eventually want to do something. My little boy
who’s nine said he wants to train me because he thinks I’m out
of shape. So maybe I’ll just be working with my children," says
Jolie, joking but also delighted about the idea: a close-knit,
globetrotting clan of moviemaking adventurers, schooled in
classrooms in Cambodian rice fields and African plains. "Now,"
she says, "where next?"
Loung Ung, 47, came to Vermont from a refugee camp in
Thailand as a 10-year-old. She now is married and lives in
Cleveland, but she and Jolie have long been friends. She and
Jolie co-wrote the script. Jolie also enlisted Rithy Panh, the
Oscar-nominated director of the Cambodian genocide documentary
The Missing Picture, as co-producer.
"There’s probably a Hollywood version of this, but this
wasn’t about that," says Ung. "This was about honor and
celebration and remembrance."
If Panh had said no, or if she couldn’t film the movie in
Cambodia, Jolie says she wouldn’t have made First They Killed
My Father. For a county still struggling with its history of
genocide, the process of remembering and re-enacting was more
important than the finished work. "It’s not really the film
itself," says Jolie. "Preparing to make it was also preparing to
understand and communicate with a country and help a country to
Panh likes to joke that Jolie, 42, is "a Cambodian woman
reincarnated." It’s clear that the two are bonded by a strong
belief in family. Panh’s experience may represent Cambodia’s,
but First They Killed My Father is also an indelibly
heart-wrenching story about a family torn apart by war, yet
"Even when the soldiers told us my parents were enemies of
the state, I knew they loved me and I loved them. There was
never a question about that," says Panh. "After I lost them,
what they said to me at a young age, their spirits continue to
say to me. I continue to be raised by my parents."
Making the film had its own emotions. Jolie had a therapist
on set for those whose memories were too painfully resurrected.
One man dropped to his knees when he saw the Khmer Rouge actors
marching over a bridge. Despite the care taken in the process,
Jolie found herself defending the film’s casting process after
she was quoted in Vanity Fair describing an improvisation
game in which money would be given and then taken from young
actors. Jolie says the suggestion that it was a real scenario
was "false and upsetting."
Jolie instead hopes the film brings audiences closer to the
Cambodian people, as well as other countries now experiencing
violent tumult. "This could be Syria," she says. "This could be
Myanmar." But it also concludes Jolie’s most massive undertaking
— a movie made for an entire country.
"I didn’t plan on becoming a director," Jolie says. "But
through directing I’ve had to learn a lot. And I’ve tried
different styles and I’ve learned different things. When I did
Unbroken, I was going to the classics that I loved and
trying to understand that. This one, I think I finally found
something that was just mine, that wasn’t something that I was
in any way trying to emulate. I was thinking: I know children
and I love the way children look at things."