Angelina Jolie on 'First They Killed My Father': "I Made It for Cambodia"

By Kay, Jeremy | Screen International, August 29, 2017 | Go to article overview

Angelina Jolie on 'First They Killed My Father': "I Made It for Cambodia"


Kay, Jeremy, Screen International


Angelina Jolie makes her most personal work yet with a 1970s-set drama about the Cambodian genocide.

Angelina Jolie, actress, filmmaker and human-rights activist, makes her most personal work yet with a 1970s-set drama about the Cambodian genocide. She talks to Screen about her Toronto international premiere First They Killed My Father.

Angelina Jolie chanced upon Loung Ung’s bestselling memoir First They Killed My Father in a Cambodian market some 17 years ago while shooting Tomb Raider - “a two-dollar paperback you find when travelling” that was as far removed as one can get from Lara Croft leaping across temples in the steaming jungle.

For Jolie, the book and the stirring yet unsentimental film adaptation it would inspire seemed to crystallise so much of the dignity and despair she had witnessed in the stricken Southeast Asian country she would return to again and again as a humanitarian activist and, later, a citizen and resident.

Ung and Jolie met through their activism work when Jolie went back shortly after Tomb Raider. One night they found themselves swaying in hammocks in the middle of a monsoon, talking through the night. “We bonded and she’s been in my life ever since,” Jolie says.

Ung was five when the Khmer Rouge emerged from the jungle in 1975 to overthrow Lon Nol’s military rule and turn a once-prosperous former French colonial outpost into an isolated death chamber. She and her middle-class family were marched out of the capital Phnom Penh and into the fields, like millions of city-dwellers across the country. When invading Vietnamese troops overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the young girl had lost both parents and two of her six -siblings. Around two million people - nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population - had been wiped out.

The two women adapted the screenplay years ago. After several more drafts, Netflix agreed in 2015 to fully finance and produce the project. In June of that year, Jolie enlisted the support of Rithy Panh, the Cambodian director of Khmer Rouge documentary The Missing Picture. Panh became a producer on the Khmer-language project and took the lead in months of meetings with the authorities and NGOs to establish permission to shoot the film on Cambodian soil.

The filmmakers had to tread carefully. This was not Thailand, Jolie reminded herself, where The Killing Fields had shot many years before. “You are bringing a film to a country and asking the people who lived through it to recreate a history with you. I really didn’t know if [the authorities] were going to say yes. …

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