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'First They Killed My Father' Is Angelina Jolie's Most Personal Work Yet

Josh Rottenberg
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

For Angelina Jolie, this is perhaps the most personal film she has made.

TELLURIDE, Colo. — On an early September afternoon, Angelina Jolie sat in a sunlit room in a scenic mountainside hotel, clearly feeling relieved.

The day before, Jolie’s latest directorial effort, the emotionally wrenching Cambodian-genocide drama “First They Killed My Father,” had its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. The crowd responded with cheers and tears in equal measure, while critics proclaimed it Jolie’s best work as a director.

It was an auspicious launch into the awards-season fray for the film, which was released by Netflix on Friday via streaming and in 10 theaters nationwide and has been selected by Cambodia as the country’s official entry for the foreign-language Oscar.

With the screening under her belt, Jolie could now take a breath and take in the rest of the famously low-key festival, which she was attending for the first time with her six children in tow, enjoying the freedom to walk around without being besieged by paparazzi or reporters lobbing questions about her recent split from Brad Pitt.

“I geeked out on Ken Burns,” she said brightly, picking at a plate of cheese and crackers beside her longtime friend, Loung Ung, who wrote the 2000 memoir “First They Killed My Father” and co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Jolie. “When do you get the chance to do that?”

On its face, “First They Killed My Father” — a child’s-eye view of the horrors of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that claimed the lives of some 2 million Cambodians — may seem an unlikely project for Jolie to have tackled. The film is entirely in the Khmer language and chronicles events that took place on the other side of the globe when she was just a toddler.

Yet for the 42-year-old actress-turned-director, it is perhaps the most personal film she has made — an attempt to recount a painful chapter in the history of the country where her 16-year-old adopted son, Maddox Jolie-Pitt, was born and where she has put down her own roots over the last two decades.

Jolie and Ung first met some 16 years ago through their work on the issue of land mines in Cambodia. For years, they had talked about bringing Ung’s story of surviving the so-called killing fields to the screen. But neither was at all sure it would ever actually happen.

“Loung was in no rush to have the film made, and we knew Maddox needed to be in the right place, because he was going to confront a lot,” Jolie said. “He goes to Cambodia a lot, he sees it — but not like that, not in that way. And then one day, Mad said that he was ready.”

Jolie’s path to “First They Killed My Father” had begun in 2000, when she traveled to Cambodia to star in a very different kind of film, the action blockbuster “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.”

“When I got there, I realized I knew nothing about this country, and I felt very ignorant,” she said. “I decided to buy a book and learn a little bit so I picked up a $2 copy of ‘First They Killed My Father.’ That was really the beginning of an education and an awareness of how little I knew and how much I needed to change my view of the world.”

Inspired in part by her growing love for Cambodia — where she would purchase a house, become a citizen in 2005 and work for environmental conservation, education and other causes — Jolie started working with the United Nations as a goodwill ambassador in 2001, devoting more and more time to humanitarian efforts around the world.

Nearly four decades after the genocide ended, the subject is still difficult for many Cambodians to discuss, let alone see reenacted onscreen. But Ung says she was confident that Jolie would do her story justice.

“Angie and I have gone through a lot in our friendship, and I trust her as a woman, as a friend, as a filmmaker but also as a mother,” Ung said. “She has a track record, not just with me but with Cambodia and with the world, confronting tough issues of war and peace and refugees. So I knew she was somebody who would understand.”

Still, for Ung, who lost both her parents and two sisters in the genocide, watching the most traumatic events of her life play out on-screen for the first time, with young actress Sareum Srey Moch depicting her journey from carefree 5-year-old to orphaned child soldier to psychologically scarred survivor, was emotionally difficult.

“I went into it willing myself to be strong,” said Ung, who was sponsored by a church group after the war and resettled in Vermont and is now a human-rights activist. “I prepped myself for the hard scenes. But I found that the scenes that broke me the most were the first scenes with the family sitting down together for dinner. To see all nine of us at a table, just eating a meal — moments like that brought it back to what it’s all about, which is the love of family and all of us trying to survive together.”

Shooting the film in Cambodia in what became the largest production in the country since the war, Jolie drew upon every tool she had learned directing her previous features.

“I think I settled more into a voice,” she said. “Maybe it’s because of Maddox, I don’t know, but … I felt bolder in the choices.”

As for Maddox, Jolie said that working on the film, on which he is credited as an executive producer, put him more deeply in touch with his Cambodian heritage. “I never wanted to press on him that he had to be connected or had to love Cambodia,” she said. “That had to come naturally, and he had to confront a lot of hard realities of what his birth parents had probably lived through. But he made something. He created something with his fellow countrymen. He was part of a Cambodian crew, part of a Cambodian film, as a Cambodian.”

Though it’s safe to say that “First They Killed My Father” is not a film that most Hollywood studios would have jumped at the idea of making, Netflix agreed early on to back it.

“It is true that this type of film would be difficult to make at a major studio because it it lacks star power and is in a foreign language,” said Scott Stuber, who oversees Netflix’s growing slate of original feature films. “We are fortunate because we have over 100 million members around the world … and we have seen the power of good storytelling traveling globally.”

That said, Jolie is aware that a film about a genocide that took place decades ago in a country many Americans would have difficulty finding on a map may not be the easiest sell to a U.S. audience, particularly these days. As someone who is deeply concerned with the rest of the world, she says the strain of isolationism that has taken hold in this country’s political life troubles her.

“I’m proud to be American, but I’m also proud to be Cambodian,” she said. “I’m proud my daughter (Zahara) is Ethiopian. I think America is built on diversity, and when we are at our best we are engaging in the world, pushing, representing something.

“And when we’re not able to do that, the damage that can have — how that spreads into all the other crises and conflicts and human-rights abuses in the world — is something we all need to be very aware of.”

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