Angelina Jolie Explains How First They Killed My Father Helped Her Son Maddox Connect to His Country
In a new behind-the-scenes video, the director, actress and activist explains how her deep connection to Cambodia and its people inspired her to help tell a painful story in the country’s recent history.
“I’m doing this for [Ung], for her family, for Cambodia and very much also for Maddox,” she said of her oldest son, whom she adopted from the country, adding, “So he learns about who he is and becomes that much more connected to his country.”
Jolie fell in love with Cambodia while filming her breakout role in 2001’s Tomb Raider there on location. She found the poverty-stricken country still recovering from the genocide inflicted by the Khmer Rouge regime, which led to the deaths of nearly a quarter of the population from 1975 to 1979. The group was active until 1999, and the war tribunals started in 2009 are ongoing.
Despite the terror endured by average Cambodians, Jolie recently told Vanity Fair of first visit, “I found a people who were so kind and warm and open, and, yes, very complex. You drive around here you can see a lot of people with many things, but not often expressing happiness. You go there, and you see the families come out with their blanket and their picnic to watch a sunset.”
In the behind-the-scenes clip, Jolie explains that she was disappointed she wasn’t taught more about Cambodia in school. Wanting to learn more, she bought a book on the side of the road for $2. The book was Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, a memoir about Ung’s harrowing experience under the Khmer Rouge.
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Jolie and Ung eventually became friends, and it was the author’s advice and support that helped the actress make up her mind about adopting a Cambodian child. “I talked to her about wanting to be the mother of a Cambodian child, and how she would feel about that as an orphan — as a woman who had been orphaned by the war,” she explains in the clip.
Ung’s support helped Jolie to visit an orphanage in the provincial town of Battambang, where she ultimately found her son Maddox, now 15. She recalled the story to Vanity Fair, remembering that at first, “I didn’t feel a connection with any of them. They then said, ‘There’s one more baby.’ ” That’s when she saw Maddox lying in a box suspended from the ceiling. “I cried and cried,” she said.
Ultimately, it was Maddox who encouraged his mom to turn “Auntie” Loung’s book into a film. “He was the one who said, ‘It’s time to do it,’ ” Jolie told Vanity Fair. She recognized his passion for the project, and realized that he’d be “standing there watching horrors that his countrymen did to each other. [So] he had to be ready.”
Determined only to make the film with Cambodian support and participation, Jolie first drafted the country’s most famous filmmaker, Rithy Panh, who had lost family in the killings. She also worked with the Cambodian government, which blessed the project, citing Jolie’s track record of respect for the country’s culture and history. Even the child actors in the film were scouted from “orphanages, circuses and slum schools,” according to Vanity Fair.
For Maddox, Jolie told the magazine, “It was a way for him to walk in the steps that most likely his birth parents walked.” By the end of the project, she was heartened to see him having sleepovers with his new Cambodian friends from set.
First They Killed My Father premieres on Netflix this September.