Loung Ung’s harrowing tale of life during the times of the Khmer Rouge reflect the realities of many Cambodian’s alive in this period.
Up until the age of 5, Ung lived a happy life in Phnom Penh with her mother, father and 6 siblings enjoying middle class life due to the father’s job as a high-ranking government official. At this time the Kingdom of Cambodia reflected on a rich history dating back thousands of years to the Khmer Empire. A history of immense power, wealth and diversity in the arts and culture was a source of pride.
The story of Cambodia is overshadowed by the rule of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the name of creating a utopian agrarian society, which resulted in one of the bloodiest genocides of the 20th Century.
When Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army stormed Phnom Penh in April 1975, Ung’s family fled their home and moved from village to village to hide their identity, education and their former life of privilege. Over the next 4 years the Khmer Rouge drove the cities population into the countryside, executing anyone that their paranoid leader perceived as enemies. More than two million people were killed, out of a total population of seven million. Ung’s father, mother and two of her sisters were executed.
The Loung family had to separate in order to survive. Loung’s resilience and determination didn’t go unnoticed and she was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans, while her remaining siblings were sent to labour camps.
When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia destroying the Khmer Rouge, surviving siblings were slowly reunited. Thanks to the bravery and love of her older brothers and sisters Loung forged on to create a courageous new life.
At nine, Ung escaped to Thailand with her older brother, and they arrived in the US as refugees soon afterwards with the help of a church foundation.
At the age of 30, Ung wrote her memoirs resulting in one of the most important books for Cambodia; First They Killed My Father where the author and human rights activist recounts the horrors she suffered under the rule of the deadly Khmer Rouge.
To The Big Screen
Hollywood movie star Angelina Jolie first came to Cambodia in 2000 to film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. At this point the country was still overrun with a generation of orphans and crippled by extreme poverty. Falling in love with the Cambodian people and seeing the devastation that was still residing in the country was a catalyst for Jolie’s humanitarian work.
On the off chance that Jolie would publicize her book, Ung sent the manuscript to her in 2001. Since then the two women have been friends. One year later with the guidance of Ung Angelina Jolie adopted her first son Maddox from an orphanage in Battambang.
On July 23, 2015, it was announced that Angelina Jolie would direct a film adaptation of the memoir First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung for Netflix. Jolie and Ung wrote the script for the movie which was produced by Rithy Panh with the help of Maddox.
The film features an all-Cambodian cast of more than 3,500 Cambodian actors, many of whom were sourced through Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang. It is entirely in the Khmer language and is the largest movie ever to be made in the country.
In her book, Ung aimed to portray the upheaval, horror and chaos of war through a child’s eyes. The movie’s cinematography seeks to do the same by shooting 4 feet from the ground with a Steadicam.
Premiere in Siem Reap
Jolie and Ung were true to their promise to premiere the movie in Cambodia first, seven months before the US release date. The anticipation of the premiere has been building for months as the country gets excited to welcome back the movie star and Loung Ung, the woman whose book enlightened the world on the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge.
The pair will travel across the country with the movie to share the moment with the Cambodian people.
The importance of the movie is that it will be an invaluable resource for educating younger generations of their countries past and will allow them to have a more realistic idea of what their recent ancestors had to endure.
The premier will undoubtedly be a magical affair, set in the backdrop of the magnificent Angkor Thom within the peaceful Angkor Wat complex. A stark juxtaposition to some of the chaos that will be shown on screen.
To add to the electricity of the evening, joining Angelina and Ung in the moment will be Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk.