'You don't get to survive a genocide by yourself, you need each other,' Loung Ung tells me after premiere of #FTKMF https://t.co/iEsBOkZOPW— Helen Regan (@hcregan) February 20, 2017
First They Killed My Father author says the kids looked up to Maddox Jolie-Pitt as a 'big brother' on set: https://t.co/m4yehSdCYs— People Magazine (@people) February 19, 2017
Following the Cambodian premiere of Angelina Jolie’s new film First They Killed My Father in Siem Reap, Cambodia Saturday, co-screenwriter, rights activist and author of the book that inspired the movie, Loung Ung, spoke to PEOPLE about what it was like working on set, the challenges of portraying the Cambodian genocide on film and eating tarantulas to lighten the mood among the cast and crew.
Ung, who has been friends with Jolie since First They Killed My Father was published in 2001, said that there was a real “family feel” on set, with Jolie’s son Maddox, 15, helping with production and her second eldest Pax, 11, shooting stills.
“I have watched the young people grow into really kind, empathetic, curious human beings,” Ung tells PEOPLE. “Pax is a talented photographer and Mad is so kind and generous. The cast kids, they all looked up to him as a big brother.”
Ung says she is “so proud” of Jolie’s sons, who would play with the young kids on set and “make them laugh.”
“There were sad days on the set and there were difficult long hours. And to do it in an environment where people love and respect each other was exactly what we needed to get it done,” she says.
The movie is based on Ung’s autobiography of the same name and tells the true story of her experiences during the Cambodian genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge communists during the 1970s. An estimated 1.7 million people died during the Khmer Rouge’s disastrous campaign to turn the country into an agrarian utopia.
Ung was just 5 when communist soldiers seized her hometown, the capital Phnom Penh, and emptied the city of its inhabitants. Thousands of intellectuals and members of the middle class were executed in a purge against what the Khmer Rouge considered was an influence from the West. Those who were not killed were forced to work in labor camps where they suffered from disease, malnutrition and abuse. Ung, whose father, mother and two sisters died during the horrors, says that her surviving siblings “love and respected Angelina so much” that they were able to trust her to tell their story.
“To have this beautiful film about family, to have this beautiful mother doing a film about family, I had complete trust that our story was in good hands. And my siblings felt exactly the same way. We are so honored and proud that this wonderful mother made this film about family,” says Ung.
And that trust in Jolie was extremely important during filming, according to Ung, as many of the actors had survived the horrors of the genocide or were children of survivors.
“We all knew on set that this wasn’t just a movie Angelina was making, but this is also in some respect her story—her son’s story,” she says, referring to Maddox who was born in Cambodia. “And she takes that seriously … and so to make a film with somebody who truly loves this place, made the cast and crew, I think, allowed them to trust the experience.”
While writing the book offered Ung a kind of therapy, it was a lonely experience and she says she felt “broken” when writing about her father’s death.
“I didn’t have a lifeline to help pull me out of the mass grave,” she says. At times, filming was “heartbreaking” but the fact that Jolie, the cast and crew supported each other got them through the tough days. “To be able to be in therapy together was so much love as opposed to being in therapy by yourself and in the dark.”
To lighten the mood on set, Ung says they “ate bugs, a lot!”
“That’s our junk food of choice,” she tells PEOPLE, laughing. When 9-year-old Sareum Srey Moch (who plays Ung) had a difficult shoot they would bring her a plate of fried tarantulas. “It was her reward for having done a terrific job on the scene,” Ung says, adding that it would really freak out the foreign crew members. “The little star would just munch them down like they were popcorn.”
The movie was shot entirely from the perspective of a child and one of the more challenging aspects of adapting the book to film, Ung explains, was how to capture the complexities of the Cambodian genocide through the eyes of a 5-year-old.
“Angelina is a very talented filmmaker, and so I followed her lead,” she says. Once on set, however, the movie became more than just Ung’s story. Ung says everyone involved on the project, from the set designers to the production assistants to the extras and musicians, were “all celebrated for having a voice and being a voice in the film.”
“And you absolutely see that on screen, in the beautiful flowers that were captured — that was the cinematographer’s voice in that sense. And Angelina was conductor of the orchestra of all these people and parts.”
The movie’s release comes at a time when the new U.S. administration under President Donald Trump has espoused anti-refugee rhetoric in the name of national security — most notably with an executive order banning nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries and temporarily banning all refugees.
In Europe, leaders are struggling to cope with the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, while far right anti-immigrant groups are gaining popularity. Ung became a refugee herself when she fled Cambodia with her older brother Kim when she was 10 years old, and eventually resettled in Vermont.
“I hope people to see that refugees are people,” she says. “Refugee is a state of being for some because of their circumstances and wars and horrors.” She reminds people that refugees are “men and women and babies and children, and mothers and brothers and sisters” who want the same thing as non-refugees: “Peace” and “security.”
Ung says it takes courage and love to survive wars, trauma and genocide. She hopes that those who watch the movie “see that the genocide didn’t break us … it didn’t defeat [the Cambodian people.]” Her message, and the message of the film, is simple: that love and family and community will help people overcome anything. “You do not get to survive a genocide by yourself,” she tells PEOPLE. “You need each other.”
First They Killed My Father will be released globally via Netflix later this year.
“I hope the world will know #Cambodia through this film”: #KhmerRouge survivors on #FirstTheyKilledMyFather https://t.co/ZrrgSlse06— The Phnom Penh Post (@phnompenhpost) February 19, 2017
At Jolie film premiere, survivors and royalty re-witness Khmer Rouge horrors
As the sun set last night over the Terrace of the Elephants amid the ruins of Angkor Thom, nearly 1,000 people – from ministers and the royal family to survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime – took their seats for the world premiere of the Angelina Jolie-directed First They Killed My Father. After Jolie had greeted the arrival of King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, the lights came down and for a brief moment the rustling of insects was the only sound as the crowd hushed. This was a moment many in the Kingdom have been waiting for.
An adaptation of Loung Ung’s autobiographical book recounting her and her family’s suffering under the Khmer Rouge, the film recounts in vivid detail the forced evacuations from Phnom Penh, the journey to the brutal labor camps in the country’s northwest, and, for Ung, being conscripted as a soldier into the ranks of the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea. Ung, who is portrayed in a highly emotional performance by child actress Sareum Srey Moch, was five years old when her family was ordered out of the capital. For some fellow survivors in attendance, the depiction on the big screen was a harrowing but cathartic experience.
Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie greets Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk on Saturday in Siem Reap at the premiere of 'First They Killed My Father.' Eli Lillis
Say Vorphorn, a 45-year-old doctor at the screening, said that while his experience as a child-survivor of the Khmer Rouge was less brutal than that of the movie’s protagonist, the loss of his own father resonated deeply.
“I was three years old during that time, but I didn’t suffer as much because my mother was a cook,” he said. “[But] I feel this deeply inside my heart because my father was killed during that time.”
Ma Rynet, the star of The Last Reel, who played an extra in a scene in which a captured Khmer Rouge soldier is beaten by angry villagers, said that seeing the final product brought her to tears.
“I hope the world will know Cambodia through this film,” she said.
Shot entirely in the country in late 2015 and early 2016, First They Killed My Father is the biggest Khmer-language film to date and the first big budget film about the Khmer Rouge for international audiences since the 1984 film The Killing Fields. Whereas The Killing Fields was framed around the true story of an American journalist, First They Killed My Father is told solely through the eyes of Ung – a decision Jolie, Ung and Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle say was taken early on in the production.
“[The book] helped me to open my eyes to different things happening in the world – things I didn’t know about that I didn’t learn in school,” Jolie said.
Co-producer and celebrated Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh explained the choice of subject matter simply at a press conference before the screening: “It’s a story that has to be told.”
Pre-Khmer Rouge golden-era actress Dy Saveth, who escaped Cambodia before the Pol Pot regime but nonetheless lost 10 family members, saw the film as a cautionary tale for the country.
“We have to remember, but we don’t need to be angry with [the Khmer Rouge], so we need to remember and avoid that this happens again.”
Another survivor, Sin Nou Visakha, 65, broke into tears as she spoke to The Post after the screening.
“I felt overwhelmed by this movie, and scared because the movie was realistic,” she said. “The image is the same as reality – 100 percent the same. It touches my heart.”
For Vasakha, First They Killed My Father has the potential to be an invaluable way of educating Cambodia’s youth about the horrors of the past.
“I want the young children to watch this, more than old people, because we have been through it and some of the young people don’t believe that we suffered like that.”
First They Killed My Father will be screened again tonight in Siem Reap at the Terrace of the Elephants, followed by a screening at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, February 21 and in Battambang on February 23, ahead of its worldwide release on Netflix later this year.
#Jolie left @phnompenhpost interview for meeting re: environmental work, so I gave her our issue w/ https://t.co/meb0m4drlK in it #FTKMF :)— Alessandro M Sassoon (@alemzs) February 19, 2017
VOA Exclusive: Beyond Film, Angelina Jolie To Continue Empowering Cambodians From Afar https://t.co/4btHZvKLyT pic.twitter.com/06PzNjHfqa— VOA Khmer (@voakhmer) February 19, 2017
Angelina Jolie says she plans for her son Maddox, who was born in Cambodia, to help lead some of her Cambodia projects after he turns 18.SIEM REAP —
Editor's Note: American actress and director Angelina Jolie said Saturday that the world premiere in Cambodia of the Khmer-language drama, 'First They Killed My Father,' is her gift to the country of her adopted son Maddox. In front of many Cambodians invited to the outdoor, evening screening near Angkor Wat, Jolie said without Cambodia "I would not be a mother." She and Cambodian-American rights advocate Loung Ung, author of the autobiography on which the Netflix production is based, sat down several hours before the premiere with VOA Khmer's Sophat Soeung to discuss their plans after the film.
VOA: You are a Cambodian citizen and we were in Battambang and saw the Maddox Foundation, so it's hard to overstate your connection to Cambodia. What are your other plans, besides the movie, going forward in Cambodia?
Angelina Jolie: Well, I will continue to do the work I have been doing for about twelve years now, up in Samlot, the Samlot area. I have been very concerned about the natural resources, about the illegal mining. That has been my focus and continues to be my focus. Of course, the center of my work is the schools for children, health care. We look after thousands of people in our way, in our outreach, from health care to education to environment. I think it is also important when you do work internationally that you work with local people. You hand it over to local people, and it becomes the project run by the local people and that is what we have up there, and the team leader is Mony Chan, and he is extraordinary, and the team who's been there a long time and are really wonderful. I am there but really it's for them, and they can exist without me present, and that’s what is important.
VOA: The foundation now carries Maddox’s name, and he is Cambodian American. Do you have specific plans for him going forward to do things in Cambodia?
Angelina Jolie: Maddox is very aware that this project is not just under his name but it's for him to take over when he is eighteen years old. So he will be taking the responsibility of this project and all that it does when he is eighteen. I believe in not pushing your children to say you need to love a country because you are from this country because that never works. You have to just introduce the country, make the country be familiar, become friends with many people in the country, and that's what's happened. So he naturally without any kind of pushing of my own, has asked to come back, has asked to spend time in his home. He’s started to really connect, so it's really beautiful. So absolutely I expect him to be very very hands-on in the future.
VOA: Now, for Loung. Not many people get to have their books made into a Hollywood movie for Netflix. How does it feel as a Cambodian American writer and what is your next project?
Loung Ung: I am writing a novel, and it also takes place in Srok Khmer. I have been coming to Srok Khmer since 1995 and it’s been 35 plus trips, so my heart is in Srok Khmer. My spirit is in Srok Khmer. My soul is in Srok Khmer, and when I am here, even though sadly my Khmer is not as ពិរោះស្តាប់ [good] as other Khmer because I left since I was 10, but it's such a pleasure to speak Khmer [language], to eat Khmer food, to listen to Khmer music, to see Khmer scenery. And I feel, for me, very full when I am Khmer spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Full. So when I look at Khmer landscape, it is like pixelated in my eyes and my retina, nothing is missing, everything is full, and so I am very proud that this film does exactly that. It is beautiful. Angie has captured not just the story but also family relationships, and cultures and sceneries, and lotus flowers, and dragon flies, and rice, and the greenness of the rice. And those are kinds of things that I thought were really important for the world to see of Srok Khmer, not just ... because Khmer Rouge is only a 4-year span in a two-thousand-year-old history. It is such an honor and a celebration that we come back here to Angkor Wat to do a premiere at the center of our civilization, at the heart and soul and pride of our nation, and that this film captures all those things. Not just the big stories but, as you know as being Khmer, for us it is small stories [and details] as well. The story of the Khmer smile, of the Khmer look, of the Khmer ជំរាបសួរ [hello] and សំពះ [greeting hand gesture], and I love that, that Angie has such a great, great eye for details, and when you see in the Khmer story and we ជំរាបសួរ. She got it right. She got that we don’t say hello in Srok Khmer with just hello but we say ជំរាបសួរ [hello] and put the hand together like this. It's very authentic, and I am very, very proud for the world to see that of Cambodia, the whole of Cambodia. They are not going to be missing anything. When they see it, you will feel full spiritually.
These are older photos given that the current haircuts of Shiloh and Knox are shorter. Angelina's face also appears fuller now. Probably taken when she was filming and was thinner.
Suron Nika and Suron Nita
# #FTKMF #Netflix Portrait of the young cambodian Sareum Srey Moch (Loung) actress in a fi… https://t.co/SxKFTW3VdD pic.twitter.com/aIF3ZOFOz4— celebrities Update (@aioinstagram) February 19, 2017
Press managing could have been better, but she came and the sky lit up #Cambodia #AngelinaJolie #FirstTheyKilledMyFather pic.twitter.com/NvHXmy9bRU— Ricardo Pérez-Solero (@RPerezSolero) February 19, 2017