Thursday, September 21, 2017

The actress and film director Angelina Jolie and the Cambodian-born writer Loung Ung have been close friends for 17 years, but you won’t find them hugging it up on the red carpet like other glamorous female celebrities.

With their shared love of humanitarian work, the duo are more likely to be found in some of the world’s poorest countries or hanging out in T-shirts and sweatpants in Jolie’s kitchen, drinking tea.
In a rare exception they were pictured recently at the Toronto and New York premieres of First They Killed My Father. The Netflix film is based on the memoir Ung wrote about her family’s struggle to survive during the devastating reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

“We support each other. We help each other grow and move forward. And we know that the things you go through in life do not have to define you,” Ung says of her friendship with the Oscar-winning actress and mother of six.

Vivacious and warm, Ung is wearing an elegant grey chiffon dress when we meet in a Manhattan hotel. Her only jewellery are earrings and a Cartier wristwatch.

First They Killed My Father is a cinematic labour of love for both women and, predictably, Jolie is at the centre of a huge publicity campaign for the film. The 42-year-old actress, whose split from her husband Brad Pitt continues to make headlines, is one of the most recognised women in the world. Is Ung intimidated by her friend’s fame?

“I might be if I met her now,” Ung says, laughing. “But we’ve known each other so long . . . I knew Angie before all this, when we could be driving around on motorcycles in the middle of nowhere and nobody bothered us.”

The women encountered each other in 2000. Ung, who had written a riveting first-person account of a young girl’s survival and resilience in the face of the murderous political regime, was living in Washington DC and working with the Campaign for a Landmine Free World. Jolie, who was in Cambodia filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, bought Ung’s book from a street seller and tracked her down.

“I knew of her, but I’d never seen any of her films,” Ung recalls. “She said she had read many books about Cambodia, scholarly books about its history, but this was the first one that really took her to . . . what happened. It was a story about family and siblings and love and nation.”

From 1965 to 1973 the US embarked on a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, directed at North Vietnamese forces. The US dropped more than 2.7 million tonnes of bombs, displacing more than 30 per cent of the population, destabilising the country and fuelling the rise of the communist guerrilla force, the Khmer Rouge.

Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge took over the country, forcing city dwellers such as Ung and her family to evacuate and sending entire populations on forced marches to rural camps and work projects. Temples, libraries and anything considered western were destroyed in the process.
More than a million people were killed in the brutal regime, which lasted until 1979. Since then it is estimated that 67,000 Cambodians have been killed or injured by landmines, and work to clear the country of these indiscriminate weapons continues.

The two women spoke on the telephone and it emerged that both were planning to travel to Cambodia. They arranged to meet in the capital, Phnom Penh.

“I was surprised by how down-to-earth she was — and is,” Ung says, remembering their first meeting. “She showed up with just a duffel bag. When you travel in Asia, trains, buses and cars never really stop completely and you have to jump on and off. It’s humid and dirty, and it can be hard work, but she was not concerned.”

Ung smiles at another memory. “I had toilet paper and she had a flashlight, so we were very useful to each other.”

Ung and Jolie travelled to the rice-producing province of Battambang. “We went to a minefield,” Ung says. “We watched how de-miners clear the land, and she was able to press the button and see the mines explode so the land could be made safe.

“The hard thing was, we were in the woods and the land had been cleared where we were, but you just never know. When you are in the field, you stay on the beaten path and you don’t get off it. You don’t know if there are a hundred mines out there or two or none, so you never go carelessly into the bush. Both of us were on alert.”

It was during this expedition that Jolie disclosed to her new friend that she was thinking about adopting a Cambodian orphan and asked if Ung, an orphan herself, would be concerned or offended by her plan.

“We were stuck in a torrential rainstorm in our hammocks, swinging away in the trees in the middle of the night with the rain pouring on us, and having long discussions about everything — family and love and all kinds of things,” Ung says.

“I was about 29 and she was 25 or 26, and I already had women friends who spoke about wanting a child. I’d ask them, ‘How do you feel about this commitment, because it’s for life?’ I was eight when both my parents died, so for me it was important that a woman not just be a mother, but that she mothers — nurtures. You have to be there through the difficulties and the joys.

“And having spent these days with her, trekking around and seeing Angie for who she is, I was completely supportive because I saw that her heart is large and she did want to nurture a child.”
Jolie said she wanted her future child to keep his or her Cambodian name and to have a continuing relationship with the mother country.

“That’s so important because I’ve gone through a lifetime of trying to find out about myself,” Ung says. “If you don’t know anything about yourself, how do you anchor yourself?”

Jolie has commented that her life would have turned out differently if Ung had not backed her decision to adopt. “She said she wanted me to be an auntie, not just for the child, who turned out to be Maddox, but for other kids that she might have, and that was very honouring,” Ung adds.

Jolie’s first adopted son, Maddox Jolie-Pitt, is now 16. “I held him in my arms when he was seven months old,” Ung says. “He was a beautiful child and he has grown into a wonderful young man.”
Ung was five when the Khmer Rouge stormed into Phnom Penh, one of seven children of a high-ranking government official. The family fled and tried to survive in the countryside. Her father was killed. Ung was trained as a child soldier while her brothers and sisters were sent to labour camps. Her mother and one of her sisters were shot dead by Khmer Rouge soldiers.

When she was ten, Ung and one of her brothers made their way to a refugee camp in Thailand. After five months they were sponsored by a church group to emigrate to America.

Ung and Jolie decided to make the film in 2015. “Maddox started asking more questions about the history of Cambodia and he wanted to visit more often,” Ung says. “It was he who said, ‘Let’s do it.’ So we jumped into action.”

The Khmer-language drama was shot on location throughout Cambodia and features an entirely Cambodian cast, many of whom are appearing in a film for the first time.

Sreymoch Sareum, who plays the central role of Ung between the ages of five and nine, was discovered in a school run by a local charity.

The auditioning process was criticised when it was revealed that casting directors trawled orphanages and slum schools and set up a scene where money was put on the table and the reactions of the youngsters were filmed when it was snatched away.

Ung dismisses the controversy. “We’re not giving Cambodian kids enough credit to know the difference between reality and play,” she scoffs. “Just because Cambodian kids don’t grow up with iPhones and televisions doesn’t mean they’re not smart. It was an audition and the children knew they were play-acting. It was not exploitative in any way.”

Ung steeled herself for the film to bring back memories. She suffered depression in her teens, she reveals, and even now dislikes the sound of fireworks because it reminds her of the bombs and landmines of her childhood.

She has tears in her eyes when she says the hardest moment on set was seeing a recreation of her family at the dinner table. “It was as if their spirits had come back to life — it really wrecked me,” she says quietly.

Adult members of the cast who had been through the same trauma also found filming difficult. “There was one scene when the players had to put on Khmer Rouge uniforms and they said it made their skin crawl, but they wanted to do it,” Ung says. “Everyone felt the film was a tremendous door to open dialogue, to celebrate lives lost and lives remained and to honour the spirit of the land and the resilience of the people.”

Jolie suggested (in an interview with The New York Times) that the film affected her view of her family and her relationship with Pitt. What does Ung think Jolie got out of the experience? Ung, who is clearly protective of her friend, thinks carefully before answering. “That life needs to be lived to the fullest, to your best ability. No matter who you are, you cannot get more than one life — this is it,” she says.

Now that the film has been released, the two women will get on with their lives. Ung, who is 46 or 47 (she does not know her exact age), met her husband, Mark, 26 years ago and the couple have been married for 15 years. They have no children and run three restaurants and two microbreweries in Cleveland, Ohio. “That’s another special thing about my relationship with Angie. My life is full and interesting, and this [their friendship] is just one aspect.”

Jolie has said that her main source of comfort since her marriage break-up has been Ung. “She’s that girlfriend who rolled up her sleeves, got on a plane and helped me on Christmas morning,” Jolie told Vanity Fair. “She’s been my closest friend. I cried on her shoulder.”

“There’s trust,” Ung says softly. “I’ve been friends with her all these years and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything about that anywhere, until now. I’ve never spoken about her and even now it’s strange to talk about her. I value that in myself. I am trustworthy.

“I love her and her children genuinely, so she can speak honestly to me and she knows it’s going to be protected and safe. She’s supported and loved. There’s no judgment.”

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