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Angelina Jolie Debunks Cambodia Storytelling Controversy

Angelina Jolie Debunks Cambodia Storytelling Controversy

Angelina Jolie’s life has always revolved around humanitarianism. Her works in developing countries such as Cambodia is commendable – a country she not only holds citizenship in, but a country where she adopted her son, Maddox Chivan from an orphanage in 2002. Since then, Jolie has returned to Cambodia to begin a film production based on Loung Ung’s memoir, First They Killed My Father. It tells a story from a child’s perspective through her blurred memories and recollections as Ung suffered and survived through the Khmer Rouge. The film depicts a real life event and seeks the convey the emotions and terror of war through a child’s eyes. However, a controversy arose when rumors and allegations circulate how Jolie and the casting crew toyed with children’s psychological and emotional well-beings during the audition process.     

How Vanity Fair’s article author Evgenia Peretz wrote about the casting process painted Jolie and the casting directors as “cruel” and “crazy” online. Peretz spoke about how the filmmakers visited Cambodian orphanages, circuses, and slum schools to select children who experienced hardships. The directors proceeded to set up a game to select their lead child actor, which Peretz described as “disturbing in its realism” – where money was placed in front of the child and asked him or her to think of something the child would steal the money for and to snatch it away. Then the director would pretend to catch them in the act of stealing and the child would have to come up with a lie. Only Srey Moch – the girl selected for the lead role – stared at the money the longest. She was overcome by emotions when she was “caught;” she cried because she thought back to her grandfather’s funeral and how “they didn’t have enough money for a nice funeral.”    

It wasn’t long until social media platforms started to attack Jolie and the casting directors and dubbing their casting process as “child abuse.” However, I believe the fierce criticisms stemmed from the  misinterpretations of online readers, believing that this staged scenario was a real scenario. Jolie cleared up the rumors by saying that there was no real money taken from a child during the audition. She further went on to express her discontent if this had unraveled, but it did not. Instead, this improvisation, which is said will be an exact scenario depicted in the film, was to find out how each auditioned child handles and responds when he or she is caught stealing something. To further deny the allegations, Rithy Panh, a Cambodian filmmaker and producer on this film cleared up the misunderstanding with the following statement:

“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.”

Jolie and the casting team’s intentions  have always been to shine light on the horrors the Cambodian men, women, but most importantly the children faced during the war – a Cambodian genocide that resulted in a eradication of two million people by the Khmer Rouge. Despite the false accusations by  critics towards Jolie and the casting directors, Srey Moch will play Loung Ung as she attempts to show the world through a child’s view and how she escaped the turmoil of life in the Killing Field.

Albeit, there is always a level of skepticism when a foreigner goes into a country to make a film about an event that so many Cambodians were affected by.  Many of you might be asking, “Why Angelina Jolie? Why is she telling the one and only story where neither herself or her parents suffered through?” Jolie is ambitious, but has enough humility to be cognizant of the fact that even though it is not her story, she is helping to tell a story as a team with Ung and Panh. To those unfamiliar with Cambodia and its bleak history, this film serves as an invitation to watch as it premieres on September 18th on Netflix. The visual creativity is guaranteed to invoke tears, laughs, but most importantly, hope.

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