You may know Cambodia as the filming location for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the birthplace of Angelina Jolie’s eldest son, a country that has granted Angelina Jolie citizenship, and as the source of several other Angelina Jolie-related facts. Recently, Cambodia has again been in the news because of its connection to Jolie. This time, Cambodia’s mention sheds light on a piece of the country’s history that continues to affect its people today.
Angelina Jolie directed the upcoming Netflix film First They Killed My Father, which tells the true story of a child caught in the midst of the genocide carried out in Cambodia by the violent Khmer Rouge dictatorship during the late ‘70s. The genocide wiped out nearly a quarter of the population, with estimates claiming the death toll was at least 1.7 million in a population of 7 million. During the film’s production, Jolie emphasized the importance of retaining the film’s authenticity and depicting the traumatic event with respect, making sure to film entirely on location in Cambodia, in the Cambodian language Khmer, with Cambodian actors (most of whom are unknown). In an interview, she said, “Most everyone in our crew survived this war and lost family members,” adding that “many of the scenes we were recreating, people had actually personally experienced.”
Jolie cited as another motivation for the film her desire to help others better understand the magnitude of the genocide and the resilience of the Cambodian people. She said, “I thought that this war that happened 40 years ago and what happened to these people was not properly understood, and not just for the world, but for the people of the country … Since [the genocide] happened, there are many people denying the history or saying it wasn’t as bad. Many people want to forget.” Jolie is not alone in feeling that people should never forget this monumental and horrific piece of recent history.
Before the film’s premiere at the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap, the spokesman for the agency that oversees the complex, Long Kosal, spoke about why he feels the film is necessary. Kosal said, “As a Khmer Rouge survivor, I am very proud that this movie is to be screened here, as the film will recall the atrocities and harm caused to the Cambodian people under the Khmer Rouge regime.” He mentioned how he appreciates the way the film serves as a reminder to a younger generation that such regimes are possible yet detrimental to both society and humanity at large. Sophy Hun, who acts in the film, adds of her participation, “This role was very hard for me. I don’t want to hear or know this story, but we must remember. We must not forget this regime.”
For others, the film serves as a medium for not only remembering but mourning the genocide. Producer Rithy Pahn said, “In order to mourn we must speak. It’s the possibility of using creation to reconstruct ourselves. Telling a story is also mourning, it’s also moving on.” Moreover, Jolie hopes that the opportunity to speak about the genocide will extend beyond the film’s production. She hopes the film’s audience will be able to see itself in the characters, relating to them in terms of what it means to have a family and be a child going through something unthinkable. Jolie calls the film “a love letter to the Cambodian people,” and Pahn elaborates what that means to him, saying, “It’s to show that, despite everything – this totalitarian regime’s attempt to destroy our identity, our culture, our thoughts, our feelings – today’s Cambodians are capable of [persevering].”
The film comes out on Netflix later this year.
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