Based on the best-selling novel by Cambodian author and human rights activist Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father tells the gripping story of how a young Loung and her siblings survived the deadly Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1978. Told through the eyes of Ung from the ages of five to nine years old, the film depicts the indomitable spirit and devotion of her family as they struggle to stay together during the Khmer Rouge years.
Produced and directed by Angelina Jolie, the film became a passion project of the actress-turned-filmmaker after reading Ung’s book. She said, “Cambodia really changed my life and I learned a lot from it. Over the years, this is a part of their history that has not been spoken about openly. I read Loung Ung’s book and it changed my life. I have been watching tribunals and the country has changed. It has been denying some of its history that needs to be told. I am doing this not only for myself and my son Maddox who is from Cambodia but also for the country itself so their history may be told and we can have this dialogue.”
As for Ung, she admitted that it was healing for her to tell this story. “How wonderful it was and healing for me to be telling this story,” she said. “This film is not just the Loung Ung story. It's not just Loung Ung's parents' story. It's a story of many of the Cambodians.” She added, “This is not only about war and trauma but it is also the story of survival. It is the story of what a family sacrificed in order to survive. It is the story of a family and their togetherness and their journey so people may know that they are alive not just because they are lucky but because they are strong and resilient. We fought and we persevered. It is important to show that we are strong human beings and not just victims.”
Two of the director’s sons also worked on the film: Maddox Jolie-Pitt, 16, is credited as an executive producer of the film while brother Pax, 13, did the still photography. The 42-year-old actress beamed as she talked about her children’s participation in the film. “I was very proud of them as a mother. I wanted them to work! It is good to have your kids work at a certain age to show them responsibility. I was impressed with how they did their work and how they handled each of their own responsibilities. I would also like to see the film through the eyes of a child.”
“Pax was doing still photography and sometimes he would show me some of his photos and I did not see them the way he saw them. I thought some of his shots were very interesting. I didn’t think of that way that a child thinks so it was good to see their perspective as well.” Jolie and Ung, who became the best of friends, co-wrote the screenplay. The film uses Cambodian actors and was filmed in the Khmer language of Cambodia.