Angelina Jolie is “upset” over fallout from a recent Vanity Fair cover story that she says mischaracterized the auditions some Cambodian children went through for her new film First They Killed My Father.
“Every measure was taken to ensure the safety, comfort, and well-being of the children on the film starting from the auditions through production to the present,” Jolie said in a statement to EW. “Parents, guardians, partner NGOs whose job it is to care for children, and medical doctors were always on hand everyday, to ensure everyone had all they needed. And above all to make sure that no one was in any way hurt by participating in the recreation of such a painful part of their country’s history.”
Directed and co-written by Jolie, First They Killed My Father is based on Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir about surviving the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
Jolie, who serves as a special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and whose son Maddox is from Cambodia, came under criticism after Vanity Fair described her casting search in forbidding terms. According to contributing editor Evgenia Peretz, Jolie and her collaborators “looked at orphanages, circuses, and slum schools, specifically seeking children who had experienced hardship.”
Peretz wrote that to find their young lead, the casting directors set up a game “rather disturbing in its realism,” in which they placed money in front of children, asked them to think of something they needed the money for, and then snatched it away. The children were also asked to pretend they had been caught and had to come up with a lie.
Jolie refuted online criticism suggesting that the auditions were exploitative or cruel. “I am 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,” she said. “The suggestion that real money was taken from a child during an audition is false and upsetting. I would be outraged myself if this had happened. The point of this film is to bring attention to the horrors children face in war, and to help fight to protect them.”
Vanity Fair did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Rithy Panh, a producer on the film who is himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, also issued a lengthy statement about the casting controversy. Read it in full below.
I want to comment on recent reports about the casting process for Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, which grossly mischaracterizes how child actors were selected for the film, and I want to clear up the misunderstandings.
Because so many children were involved in the production, Angelina and I took the greatest care to ensure their welfare was protected. Our goal was to respect the realities of war, while nurturing everyone who helped us to recreate it for the film.
The casting was done in the most sensitive way possible. The children were from different backgrounds. Some were underprivileged; others were not. Some were orphans.
All of the children were tended to at all times by relatives or carers from the NGOs responsible for them. The production team followed the families’ preferences and the NGO organizations’ guidelines. Some of the auditions took place on the NGOs’ premises.
Ahead of the screen tests, the casting crew showed the children the camera and the sound recording material. It explained to them that they were going to be asked to act out a part: to pretend to steal petty cash or a piece of food left unattended and then get caught in the act. It relates to a real episode from the life of Loung Ung, and a scene in the movie, when she and her siblings were caught by the Khmer Rouge and accused of stealing.
The purpose of the audition was to improvise with the children and explore how a child feels when caught doing something he or she is not supposed to be doing.
We wanted to see how they would improvise when their character is found “stealing” and how they would justify their action. The children were not tricked or entrapped, as some have suggested. They understood very well that this was acting, and make believe. What made Srey Moch, who was chosen for the lead role of Loung Ung, so special was that she said that she would want the money not for herself, but for her grandfather.
Great care was taken with the children not only during auditions, but throughout the entirety of the film’s making. They were accompanied on set by their parents, other relatives or tutors. Time was set aside for them to study and play. The children’s well-being was monitored by a special team each day, including at home, and contact continues to the present. Because the memories of the genocide are so raw, and many Cambodians still have difficulty speaking about their experiences, a team of doctors and therapists worked with us on set every day so that anyone from the cast or crew who wanted to talk could do so.
The children gave their all in their performances and have made all of us in the production, and, I believe, in Cambodia, very proud.