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Watching Angelina Jolie's New Cambodian Film in Cambodia

Last February, survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime and their children gathered to relive a traumatic chapter in their country's history.
Angelina Jolie speaks as her children and actors of her new film stand on a stage during the premiere of First They Killed My Father at the Elephant Terrace inside the Angkor park in Siem Reap on February 18th, 2017.

Angelina Jolie speaks as her children and actors of her new film stand on a stage during the premiere of First They Killed My Father at the Elephant Terrace inside the Angkor park in Siem Reap on February 18th, 2017.

Angelina Jolie commands an odd sort of celebrity in Cambodia, where she filmed First They Killed My Father, her latest directorial effort. She first traveled to the country to film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2000, but is perhaps best known among Cambodians for adopting her first child, Maddox, there two years later, and for the humanitarian projects she has established in the country's rural northwest. (For this work, Jolie was granted Cambodian citizenship in 2005.)

At First They Killed My Father's premiere near the resort town of Siem Reap earlier this year, those in her orbit seemed to regard her as an American movie star and national icon in equal measure. In Cambodia, fans of Jolie admire her for what they say she has done for the country—cared about it, brought attention to it—with her celebrity status. The film was screened for a primarily local audience and began with a greeting from the king on the grounds of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, which was lit up for the occasion. As we entered its south gate, my tuk-tuk driver spotted my ticket. "Where did you get that?" he asked with a cheeky grin. "Can you get me in? I just want to see Angie. She loves Cambodia."

It is perhaps because of Jolie's long personal connection with the country and celebrity that a project like First They Killed My Father—which is now streaming on Netflix—was at all possible. She was able to secure funding and distribution to depict a history that Hollywood may have otherwise passed over—Ted Sarandos, Netflix's chief creative officer, has said Jolie's visual pitch on the story sold him on it. The first mainstream film to be made entirely in the Khmer language, First They Killed My Father was shot with a cast and crew that drew largely on local talent. No Caucasian actors appear across its entire 136-minute running time. Many of those involved recited the same refrain in interviews with Pacific Standard: that it was made by Cambodians for Cambodians.

But the production has also weathered a fair amount of controversy. During filming, residents in the northwestern city of Battambang complained of the presence of military police and business closures without promised compensation from local authorities. In July, a Vanity Fair cover story mentioned that some scenes featured members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces—which human rights groups say Prime Minister Hun Sen has used to suppress his political opposition. Human Rights Watch labeled this decision a "terrible mistake."

The profile also included an account of an exercise in which casting directors presented potential child actors with money, dared them to steal it for something they needed, and lie when they were caught about what they needed it for. (Jolie denies that real money was taken from auditioned children. Vanity Fair has stood by its reporting, and released a transcript of its interview with Jolie.)

Nevertheless, the Cambodian premiere one night last February was a decidedly local affair, largely untroubled by such controversy. Those unable to grab one of the first 1,500 seats—including my tuk-tuk driver—formed their own rows on the grass. Baguette sandwiches, or nom pang, were passed out in the back. The crowd chattered as the opening credits appeared on screen.

Cambodian workers help set up the area for the premiere.

Cambodian workers help set up the area for the premiere.

First They Killed My Father—which is adapted from the memoir of the same name by Loung Ung, a friend of Jolie's who co-wrote the script—frames its story through the eyes of a young girl whose family is forced from Phnom Penh to the countryside when the Khmer Rouge evacuates the capital. Though the film's protagonist starves and trains to be a child soldier over the course of the film, her experience is rendered in almost rosy detail, from labor camp to training camp to refugee camp. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle makes use of soft light, rendering scenes of despair with beauty. The resulting images are violent, but never grotesque; deaths—like the titular one—often take place offscreen. Reflected in the eyes of first-time actor Sareum Srey Moch, who plays the young girl, the plot turns on emotions rather than events.

The screening was not a somber event. In Cambodian movie theaters, conversation often continues during the film; some people in the audience talked throughout, gasping at moments of intense action, particularly when soldiers appeared onscreen. First They Killed My Father ended as it had begun: with a standing ovation.

There have been many international films focused on Cambodia's darkest years, but few in recent memory have created such a buzz. (The last Khmer Rouge-era movie made for a large international audience, the British-made The Killing Fields, was produced in Thailand in 1984.) The country is transforming rapidly as it grapples with the legacy of a regime under which nearly a quarter of its population perished. Cambodia's population is exceptionally young: more than two-thirds of Cambodians was under the age of 30 in 2016, meaning most were born well after the Khmer Rouge fell from power in 1979, and have no direct experience with the period. They learn about the period from their families, or during limited history lessons taught in public school.

This was apparent in the audience, which seemed to be filled mostly with children of survivors. Many were young families with children, like the one reflected onscreen. During one scene, this mirror effect became apparent: The boy sitting behind me began to repeat the Khmer Rouge slogans, just as they were drilled into child soldiers in several scenes in the film, before his father carried him out, to a faint chorus of laughter from those sitting nearby.

Angelina Jolie pays respect to Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni as former queen Monique looks on during the premiere.

Angelina Jolie pays respect to Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni as former queen Monique looks on during the premiere.

Quieter reactions were more difficult to gauge. Nevertheless, the film inspired discussions about the Khmer Rouge period after the screening ended. That's rare in Cambodia, where a history of the regime has been required reading in public schools for less than a decade, and some prefer to remain silent about the period.

Kong Sopheap, a sharply dressed 27-year-old seated near to me, said the film filled in some knowledge gaps. "Many young people don't understand this, the tragic history," she said. "I didn't live through the regime, but during the film, I felt so emotional—it made me understand my own history."

Some were uncertain if Jolie, the American star, had brought authenticity to the Cambodian experience onscreen. "The film reminded me of my parents, who told me about what they suffered," said Sos Soka, 34, a man with a toddler on his hip. But he pointed out that the stories he heard were "much worse" than the one portrayed in the film.

One child survivor, Youk Chhang—who now heads up the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which holds many of the country's genocide archives—disagreed. "People always say: 'This is not horrible enough. It was worse than this.' But this film brought a new approach," he said, pointing both to its "beautiful" cinematography and its childlike gaze. "Resilience. Children fought back. It reminded me of when I was tortured by the Khmer Rouge. I thought, 'I'm going to get this guy.' It kept me alive."

After the premiere the film prompted some survivors to speak out. During the next week, a young father wrote a letter to the editor of The Cambodia Daily, recounting that, on the ride home from a screening, his mother had told their family history in full for the first time to her grandson.

Other survivors in the audience began opening up during the movie itself, Yean Reaksmey, a costume assistant on the film who was seated near the front, says. "I watched the film, but I watched the people around me as well. The old people in front of me kept saying, 'It looks like me,'" he says, adding that there were others who cried quietly. "Maybe it's about forgiving.... To forgive that a lot of older people don't talk about it, and understanding why they don't."

As the film cut to black in Siem Reap, many at first remained in their seats and there was a moment of silence. Then, all at once, there was a movement toward the exits, snippets of conversation bouncing through the crowd. Motorbikes rumbled. The lights faded. Only then did the park return to its usual quiet, the ghosts that remained receding into the dark.