On Wednesday, September 13th, First They Killed My Father screened at Lincoln Center. Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner and I were able to attend, and it was quite an experience. In this completely packed theatre, full of excited film aficionados, we made our way to the balcony and waited anxiously for Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung’s film. While there, Jan ran into Senior Contributor Lesley Coffin (small world!), further proving that regardless of how loud the male voice is yelling about this film, that women are showing up to represent and support these female filmmakers.
After the film, there was a brief Q&A with Jolie and Ung. The two filmmakers talked about everything from filming in Cambodia to their personal lives, and both were beautifully eloquent.
Angelina talked first about the first time that she went to Cambodia, and the drastic impact that it had on her life: I first went to Cambodia for an action movie. We were the first film back since the war and I was shocked at how little I knew. I expected to meet a very angry people, and I was stunned to meet such a resilient kind people. One day I went for a walk and I bought this paperback book called First They Killed My Father, and I loved it. I loved the way she told the story through a child, it made me learn. She talked to me, and she taught me as a writer… One day I was volunteering and I was on the phone with Loung, and we decided to meet and we went off and spent the night in this monsoon and spent the entire night talking… I noticed how little this was spoken about… I want to help make films keep archives… so we worked together and decided we would only do this if the country was ready and if they were willing. And they were.
Loung then spoke on her relationship with Angelina, and the amazing influence that being a filmmaker has had on her life: Angie and I have been friends for 16-17 years. I adore this woman. I trust her beyond our friendship. She had a relationship with Cambodia, it’s connected her son and her soul and her spirit. For me, Angie is also a wonderful writer and that trust in wanting to tell the same story… I didn’t want to write a story about war—I wanted to write a story about love. It’s my love letter to Cambodia and to my family. It can be lonely and sad [telling this story] I expected the set to be heartbreaking and terrifying and there were moments like that… but we also had therapists and good food and good people on set and it was a collective journey together and that was heartbreaking and also beautiful. All the Cambodians were either survivors or children of survivors, and we all lost and we all suffered but we were all there together because we wanted to do this. If we were suffering, everyone there was suffering, and they were there [to support us]. I have a newfound love of filmmaking. It’s a story about family, and when you make a film you become a family. What a wonderful profession to be in.
The two then discussed war and politics. Angelina had some particularly poignant thoughts on genocide, and the urge for action:
We have these open ended wars. We see more business than actual politics, and we’re in a very dark time. I grew up thinking when we hear Rwanda, and Bosnia… if we knew we would have gotten right in there, but now we know. We know what’s happening in Syria, and people are informed, and they’re marching and talking and we’re told that’s not your problem focus on yourself. And when we’re trying to be united we’re being divided and it’s no small thing, it is what leads to this it’s happening around the world and we need to just be good. And make it through this time together.
The two women then spoke on working with children, and what it was like to work with young actress Sareum Srey Moch, the actress that played Loung Ung. Jolie started by saying:
These actors are so brilliant. I was so fortunate I love children, they’re so honest. You just need to get out of their way. You can tell them exactly what it’s about. I would always tell her “just listen” you don’t need to have big tears, or anything. And when we did the scene when she loses her sister, she got very emotional. I asked her if she was okay, and she said she was sorry for Loung, that she was sorry that Loung had to say goodbye. So these kids understand what’s happening… The idea of the point of view of a child. Some of it is obvious, looking at sightlines etc. but it’s the emotional point of view that matters it’s the innocence. And we decided that we would have to set an environment and then we would just watch her. And the scenes when she’s a five year old she really would just get distracted. She looks away from violence. She looks at new things, things she has never seen before. But at 9-years-old, when she’s standing in the river, she doesn’t look away. She knows how to calculate survival. She’s a completely different girl. And she is a brilliant actor.
Loung Ung also had some wonderful things to say about Sareum Srey Moch: She’s also just a really fun good little person. She’s feisty. She’s a normal fun girl, she’s unaffected and unafraid and there’s a stillness that she had that I liked and that I thought I had before war came into my country. I’m always looking for safety, and for a way to get out. She’s raised in a safe environment, in a safe home that gives her stillness that she has when she leaves. I have a brother in Vermont and a brother in L.A. and my sister and my brother, after many years of trying to come to America, so my brother and my sister are in American. I didn’t’ see some of my siblings for 15 years. The US didn’t normalize diplomatic relations so I wasn’t able to go back [to Cambodia] until 1995. By that time, she had already had an arranged marriage and five kids. But now she and her family are happy and healthy and they are at peace.
First Photo: Director Jolie on set of First They Killed My Father.
Second Photo: Jolie and Ung at an event for the film.
Third Photo: Jolie and Ung at the Q&A
Fourth Photo: Jolie, Maddox Jolie-Pitt, and Ung on set.
Photo Credits: First, second, fourth photos: Pax Jolie-Pitt, Roland Neveu; third photo: Jan Lisa Huttner.