The Hollywood actress tells the true story of a young girl’s survival under Pol Pot. She talks to Jon Swain, himself a witness to the killing fields, about making it real
When Angelina Jolie first arrived in Cambodia 17 years ago, she knew little about the country’s tragic past. She was there to be filmed amid the fabled Angkor temples in scenes for the action-packed adventure Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Something stopped the young actress turning her back on the country, however. It captivated her.
In the 1970s, the Vietnam War had spilled across Cambodia’s borders and the country was convulsed by civil war, accompanied by American bombing. What followed in 1975 was Pol Pot’s murderous revolution. He turned the clock back to Year Zero, telling the millions of Cambodians toiling in the giant labour camp their country had become: “To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.” His genocidal regime killed about 2m people, or a quarter of the population.
Jolie was smitten by the survivors’ brave struggle to recover and by Cambodia’s beauty. She returned again and again. She adopted a Cambodian orphan, her son Maddox, and became involved in humanitarian work: in recognition of that, by royal decree, she was made a Cambodian citizen.
Angelina is not someone who came to make a film about us. She came to make a film with us
Now the Oscar-winning actress has made a film about the genocide, as seen through the eyes of a little girl. First They Killed My Father is adapted from the bestselling book of that name by Loung Ung, who by the age of 10 had endured the killing of her mother and father, and the death of two sisters, at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Through luck and her own resilience, she survived, and she and Jolie collaborated on the script.
Cambodia was a living hell. Doctors, professionals, even those with soft hands or spectacles that suggested they could read, were killed, and their executioners were often child soldiers. Pol Pot saw children such as Ung not as individuals, but as tiny vessels to be indoctrinated as a source of power. Even children’s laughter was forbidden.
This is not the first feature film to explore the Khmer Rouge genocide. In 1984, Roland Joffé directed The Killing Fields, in which I am a character. But what distinguishes Jolie’s film and makes it so special is that she shot it in Cambodia, in the very place where so many people had suffered and died, using an all-Cambodian cast, many of whom were survivors or the children of survivors. The dialogue is also in the Cambodian language.
The film had its premiere earlier this year in Siem Reap. It was screened a few days later in the inner arena of the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, which I remember in the last weeks of the war as a casualty receiving centre, overflowing with the dead and dying as rockets crashed around.
I spoke to Jolie about it last week. As director, she said, she saw her role as shepherding the film and making it possible. But, ultimately, she believed it had to be made by the people of Cambodia themselves.
Cambodia has moved on a great deal in the past 40 years. Yet for many the genocide still looms over their lives, and the topic remains politically sensitive. Was the country ready for her film, and did Jolie ever doubt that it would work?
“Yes, I did,” she admitted. “I was not sure, and so we stepped very lightly. For some films, making and releasing them is the success. For this film, being able to make it — having the ability to make it, and the country agreeing to it — was the success.”
She said if the Cambodians had not responded and come forward to work on the film, and the local authorities and NGOs had not been willing to make it possible and give their support, she would not have been able to go ahead.
Its authenticity, she insisted, was not due to any talent of hers, but to her ability to listen. She let the Cambodians guide the film, from how a father might respond to his children to how the Khmer Rouge would behave in particular scenes. It was not her imagination informing it, but long, hard, painful conversations with people who had to recall what it was like.
“Everything we learnt to make the film was something we were learning about the country itself — where the scars had settled, why we would need therapists on set — because so many people had never talked about their experiences before,” she said.
“We were conscious we were in the very country, on the very ground, where people were hurt and buried, and that we were recreating those times and a very particular negative energy, which is palpable for Cambodians, given they have such a strong sense of the spirits.”
As a result, she said, nothing was more important than being respectful of the souls of those who had perished. “Before we put actors in Khmer Rouge uniforms, we would have spirit houses on set, and incense and traditional offerings.”
Having witnessed myself at first hand as a young journalist the Khmer Rouge’s brutal takeover of the country, I had wondered, too, whether the film could ever capture the atmosphere of those terrible times. I need not have worried. I think the film is remarkable for its authenticity. It is wrenching and sad and full of beauty and humanity, like the Cambodia I once knew.
People clapped and wept at the Phnom Penh screening. The old members of the audience saw themselves in it, and the young ones realised what their parents and grandparents had suffered; it was, for some, the first time they had talked to each other about the genocide. For, although the film is based on Ung’s story, it is the story of all Cambodian children and the parents who tried to protect them and keep them alive.
“It is Loung’s story, but survivors see it as their story, too, and it is wonderful that they see themselves in it,” Jolie said. “It has been accepted as a true story, but also as a fable to tell people what happened.”
The acclaimed film-maker Rithy Panh worked closely with Jolie as her co-producer. He, too, lost his family under Pol Pot, and his own films, most notably the award-winning documentary The Missing Picture, have shone a light on the genocide. Panh was keen to ensure that the film’s portrayal of the Khmer Rouge’s barbarity did not stamp out the country’s underlying humanity. Here and there, we see glorious lotus flowers blooming in the mud, symbols of hope amid the horror.
“Angelina is not someone who came to make a film about us,” Panh told me. “She came to make a film with us. She loves Cambodia sincerely, with humility. One thing I remember that stays with me. She asked me if I could build a small spirit house on set. Sometimes she would put incense, just as we do, to pay respect to the spirits and the souls at the location where we were shooting. She did it so naturally.”
Nobody will fail to be moved by the poignantly uplifting performance of Sreymoch Sareum, the little girl playing Ung. Coming from a simple family in the Phnom Penh suburbs, and seven at the time of filming, she is hardly as tall as the AK-47 rifle she is forced to carry, and has Ung’s cheeky resilience and independence.
Jolie said she gave so much more than anyone expected from such a young actor. “In the editing room, when I thought I would cut away to the point of view, I kept coming back to her. She is a very intelligent young girl, as well as a wonderful actor. You are drawn to her because you can see her mind working, and she is very present.”
“There was an affection between her and Angelina,” Panh said. “Angelina created an environment where she understood it was not reality, it was a film, so there was no confusion. We did not tell her to cry or not to cry. She decided herself, according to the environment we created for her. Angelina corrected a few things, but she never pushed her into performing something unnatural to her.”
The film provides an important lesson about Cambodia’s need for reconciliation with justice, not revenge. There is an incident in Ung’s book where a captured Khmer Rouge soldier is beaten to death by a vengeful crowd. In the film he is battered, but survives. The decision to change it was made in a group discussion between Ung, Jolie and Panh.
“We could not leave viewers with the feeling that Cambodians were vengeful people,” Jolie said. “There were acts of revenge, but they were minimal compared with the amount of forgiveness and moving forward that was shown.”
Killing the Khmer Rouge soldier would have been more dramatic in some respects on screen. But the three of them agreed that it would have been less true to Cambodia and did not fit in with the emotions of a child like Loung. “The suffering from this genocide is so great that it exceeds the desire for vengeance,” Panh said.
He disagreed profoundly with the German philosopher Theodor W Adorno’s controversial dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. “I say that after Auschwitz we need more poetry. For me that is the lesson of this film. It proves we Cambodians are capable of speaking and expressing ourselves about our history. At last we can talk and discuss what happened, and thereby begin a process of reconstruction of our identity.”
The genocide still casts a shadow. But it is fading with time. Watching Jolie’s film, I am reminded once again that the beauty of Cambodia lies almost everywhere, and most of all in the faces of its children who are the same age as Ung was 40 years ago. How heartwarming it is to see them playing and laughing together, unlike Ung and all those others whose childhood was stolen by genocide.