Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father is a feature long in the making. The catalyst for the film can be traced back to when Jolie was in Cambodia in her 20s. She purchased Loung Ung’s book from a street corner, and it was a humbling learning experience for the Oscar-winning actress.
“I didn’t realize how much my education was lacking and how much I needed to learn,” said Jolie. “This book was an education for me — about refugees and what children go through in a war. I wanted to find Loung.”
The Netflix film is about Cambodian author and human rights activist Ung’s life under the rule of the deadly Khmer Rouge, the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. The film is the adaptation of Ung’s memoir about surviving the deadly regime from 1975-78. The story is told through her eyes, from the age 5, when the Khmer Rouge came to power, to 9 years old.
When asked by moderator Pete Hammond how she felt when Jolie contacted her, Ung laughed that she was in “disbelief.”
“We clicked right away — she was really, really authentic,” said Ung. “She really hates it when I gush about her in public, but she’s a really cool person.” Since then, the two developed a friendship that has lasted over 16 years. As a result, Jolie brought Ung’s story to the big screen — and she wanted to make it as authentic as possible.
“We were determined to shoot in Cambodia and that it was going to be in Khmer and not English,” said Jolie. “We wanted to do it the right way.”
Jolie was excited to cast Sareum Srey Moch as a young version of Ung and tap into the unseen and overlooked artistic talent of Cambodia.
“During the war, artists were killed because of their influence,” said Jolie. “Having the artists come back to paint the sets and act the scenes was so inspiring. You’re not sad about the story, but your proud of what this country can do creatively.”
Written by Jolie and Ung, First They Killed My Father is Cambodia’s official entry for this year’s Academy Awards Foreign Language Film race. Jolie, who has dual citizenship in America and Cambodia, was selected by the government to represent the Southeast Asian country — which is remarkable considering she is a Western woman.
Jolie said she brought this story to the screen for many reasons but also because she wanted her son, who is Cambodian, to see what his birth parents went through. For a country that doesn’t discuss its history, Jolie said she “wanted this country to have some closure in some way to say ‘that’s what it was like.’ It’s amazing that they let me in, but it was amazing that they allowed the history to be re-created on the streets. Every Cambodian person in this film knew someone who was affected by the war, and they came back to do this for their loved ones.”
Ung chimed in: “If I may, we Cambodians don’t consider Angie a Western woman. She’s ours, and she’s been a citizen since 2005 — and before that, she was Cambodian in spirit”
Jolie produced First They Killed My Father alongside Cambodian director and producer Rithy Panh, director of the Academy Award nominee The Missing Picture.