Angelina Jolie is returning to the country that helped launch her international stardom — but this time as a director.
Jolie, who filmed parts of her major breakthrough role in "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" in Angkor, Cambodia, began production this month on a new Netflix original film based on human rights activist Loung Ung’s memoir, “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers."
“When I first came to Cambodia, it changed me. It changed my perspective,” Jolie told the Associated Press last week. “I realized there was so much about history that I had not been taught in school, and so much about life that I needed to understand, and I was very humbled by it.”
“First They Killed My Father,” published in 2000, chronicles Ung's childhood in the wake of the 1970s Khmer Rouge genocide. The book became a national bestseller and a recipient of the 2001 Asian/Pacific American Librarians’ Association award for “Excellence in Adult Non-fiction Literature.”
Ung, who moved to the United States with her brother in 1980, was only 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge army invaded her native city of Phnom Penh. In a 2015 interview with the website Banana Writers, Ung recounted writing her [three] books out of the desire to reclaim her voice and use it to tell people not only of what happened in wars, but how families managed to survive its aftermath.
“As a child, I used to get angry when I heard people say how fortunate I was for being so young in the war. As if to imply that I had somehow forgotten or did not remember what happened,” Ung said. “When the words came to me as an adult, I knew I had to speak up for that silent child in order to free her. ... Writing 'First They Killed My Father' allowed me to give my child-self back her voice.”
The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), infamously known as the Khmer Rouge led by leader Pol Pot, took control of Cambodia in the spring of 1975, initiating four years of execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor. About two million people were ordered on a forced march to the countryside via an urban evacuation. The goal was an agrarian utopia marked by social engineering and lack of all foreign influence.
However, the Khmer Rouge resulted in one of the bloodiest genocides of the 20th century. By the end of the genocide in 1979, the death toll in Cambodia was between 1.2 million and 2.8 million — about a quarter of the country’s entire population.
Ung’s parents, two sisters, and 20 other relatives were among the victims.
“Memoirs bring the numbers of casualties to a human face,” Ung told Banana Writers. “A story, a father, a mother, a daughter, a family. A memoir connects the humanity in us, which is a great way to promote peace in our world.”
Jolie is directing the movie, which has an all-Cambodian cast, not with the intent of revisiting the horrors of the war, but to have people empathize with the characters and learn about Cambodia.
“What is special about this particular story is that it is told from the perspective of a 5-year-old child, and is based on a child's emotional experience of war,” Jolie told the AP last year. “It sheds light not only on the experience of children during the genocide in Cambodia but of all children who endure war.”
In 2002, Jolie adopted her son Maddox, now 14, from Cambodia, and also opened the Maddox Jolie-Pitt foundation — to help alleviate poverty and preserve Cambodia’s habitat — in the Battambang province a year later.
Jolie said she also intends on on returning to Cambodia at the end of the year to hold the film’s premiere prior to its release on Netflix.