Angelina Jolie is contesting Vanity Fair‘s depiction of auditions she held for children in her upcoming Cambodian film “First They Killed My Father,” which some critics have called emotionally abusive.
The Jolie profile piece described auditions for children from orphanages, circuses and slum schools as being presented as a “game, rather disturbing in its realism: they put money on the table and asked the child to think of something she needed the money for, and then to snatch it away. The director would pretend to catch the child, and the child would have to come up with a lie.”
Jolie, who is a United Nations special envoy for refugees, issued a statement Saturday to Huffington Post, saying, “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.”
“First They Killed My Father” is based on the non-fiction book by Loung Ung, a Cambodian author and childhood survivor of the Pol Pot regime. It recounts her memories as a young girl fleeing her home with her family and moving from village to village to hide their identity and education. The “game” audition was reportedly based on a real-life experience Ung had after being caught stealing money by the Khmer Rouge.
Vanity Fair did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Here are statements from Jolie and film producer Rithy Pahn.
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. 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.
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. 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.
Rithy Panh, producer:
I want to comment on recent reports about the casting process for Angelina Jolie‘s First They Killed My Father, which grossly mischaracterize 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.