Our first look at Angelina Jolie’s latest movie is here, and it’s harrowing. First They Killed My Father, which will be Jolie’s fifth directing credit, follows Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch), a young Cambodian girl, as she and her family attempt to survive through the horrors of the genocide that began in 1975. The trailer quickly runs us through Ung’s home life, the beginning of the Khmer Rouge regime’s storming of Phnom Penh, Ung’s father’s death, and, finally, her time in a child work camp and as a child soldier. The film is based on Ung’s memoir of the same name, and the author served as a co-writer on the film. (Ung is also a long-time friend of Jolie’s). Jolie has a strong connection to Cambodia, having first visited the country while on-location shooting Tomb Raider. Since then, she’s become heavily involved in humanitarian and conservation work and her oldest adopted son, Maddox, was born there. She was awarded Cambodian citizenship in 2005.
First They Killed My Father has been a subject of controversy as of late due to a recent Vanity Fair profile on Jolie that detailed an improvised scene she conducted with impoverished children during the audition process. The audition scene involved casting directors placing money in front of the children—many of whom were from “orphanages, circuses, and slum schools”—asking them to imagine what they needed the money for, and having the child snatch the money away. The directors then pretended to catch them, and the child had to make up a lie for why they did it. Jolie has pushed back on the criticism, telling the Huffington Post that peoples’ outrage lacked context, and that all the children who auditioned were aware that they had to do this.
“I am upset that a pretend exercise in an improvisation, from an actual scene in the film, has been written about as if it was a real scenario,” Jolie said in a statement released by the Huffington Post. “The suggestion that real money was taken from a child during an audition is false and upsetting. I would be outraged myself if this had happened.” Rithy Panh, a Cambodian producer on the film who has been celebrated for documentaries focusing on the effects of the genocide on his home country, also released a statement where he said that Vanity Fair’s account of the child casting process was “mischaracterized.”
“Great care was taken with the children not only during auditions, but throughout the entirety of the film’s making,” Panh added in his statement. “The children gave their all in their performances and have made all of us in the production, and, I believe, in Cambodia, very proud.”
The casting process is not the only issue the film has had to deal with, however. Jolie’s Vanity Fair profile also detailed the film’s production in the city of Battambang that was aided by the Cambodian military. As New York magazine pointed out, working with the Cambodian army is a point of controversy, as the country’s armed forces have engaged in horrific human rights abuses.
Aside from these points of contention, Jolie’s film could be considered notable for its lack of concessions to attract a wide audience or carefully explain to non-Cambodian audiences what the genocide was. As Jolie told The Guardian, she didn’t want her film to be reminiscent of The Killing Fields, the 1984 film that saw the genocide partly through the eyes of a white protagonist. First They Killed My Father features an entirely local cast, is spoken in Khmer dialogue, and is meant primarily for a Cambodian audience.
First They Killed My Father will screen at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival.