Loung Ung remembers the first time she met her friend and collaborator Angelina Jolie. It was completely by chance in 2001, Ung recalled. She was doing work in Cambodia with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, making prosthetics for children who had lost limbs due to land mines.
“She was there filming, and she picked up a copy of my book and then called me up," Ung said of Jolie. "I picked up the phone and that was that.”
That meeting was the start of what would become a long friendship.
“We connected right away. We were two young women, we were working on humanitarian issues,” Ung said.
They eventually decided to adapt Ung’s memoir, “First They Killed My Father,” into a film script. Jolie directed the film, which was produced by Netflix and released in February. Since then it has been nominated for a Golden Globe in the Best Foreign Film category and was Cambodia’s official foreign language selection for the Oscars, though it did not make the award show's shortlist.
As a writer you try to bring the story to life with your own words. To see it on screen is a completely different matter. At times, it was like an out of body experience.
The book the film is based on details Ung’s childhood before the Khmer Rouge took over the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in the spring of 1975. Until that point, the 7-year-old Ung had an idyllic upbringing as the child of a government official. The family was then forced to flee their home in order to survive.
While watching the movie be filmed, Ung had to emotionally prepare herself for scenes depicting the times her family was still together.
“As you can imagine, that is a very powerful experience,” she said. “As a writer you try to bring the story to life with your own words. To see it on screen is a completely different matter. At times, it was like an out of body experience.”
Seeing how she and her six siblings processed their trauma as children was also startling. “Seeing it from my point of view, I didn’t know the lies that we were told. I didn’t know about the war,” Ung said. “Seeing my father, when he was taken it was devastating.”
Though the film is in Khmer, Ung said that working with Jolie on the script was relatively simple, though Ung said the two collaborators did adapt the script into English first before having it translated into Khmer.
“We really didn’t need that many words," Ung said. "If you saw the movie, it was almost like a silent film. The expressions of the child told the story.”
The newcomer Sareum Srey Moch plays the young Loung Ung in the film and has garnered praise for her “impressive presence.” But over the summer, an interview Jolie did with Vanity Fair came under fire because of the way the audition process was described.
“[T]he casting directors set up a game, rather disturbing in its realism: they put money on the table and asked the child to think of something she needed the money for, and then to snatch it away,” journalist Evgenia Peretz wrote in her feature for the magazine's August issue.
We went in there to make a love letter to Cambodia. I wanted to honor my parents.
Srey Moch won the role after she was “overwhelmed with emotion” after being told she had to return the money, explaining her family needed it for her grandfather’s funeral, Vanity Fair reported.
After intense criticism, Jolie said in a statement that she was “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."
Ung said the controversy was overblown. “It was a non-issue. Cambodian kids and our actors are so intuitive,” she said. “They absolutely know the difference between play acting and something real. To suggest otherwise is nonsense."
Vanity Fair said in August that it stood by its reporting. Ung said that the most important thing to both Jolie and herself was how the film was received by actual Cambodians.
“It’s an honor that the country picked the film to represent it at the Oscars,” Ung said, adding that during the Cambodian Genocide, artists were targeted and that it is significant that the film was made in Cambodia and features a Cambodian cast. “We are a country that is rich in beauty and art.”
The film also served as a way for Ung to pay tribute to the family members and other Cambodians who were killed during the genocide.
“We went in there to make a love letter to Cambodia. I wanted to honor my parents,” she said. “And for the rest of the world, I hope they see the people who went through war and genocide. Those who are hurt are often the most vulnerable of society and they are often the ones that are the most silent. They are the ones we need to be aware of.”