TELLURIDE, Colo. — Angelina Jolie made her first trip to the Telluride Film Festival this year with her fourth directorial effort, “First They Killed My Father.” Based on the memoir by Loung Ung, it tells the harrowing story of Ung and her family, who fled their home in Phnom Penh, Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge regime took over and moved from village to village, hiding their identity and former life of privilege. Ung would eventually even train as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans to survive.
The film is Jolie’s finest hour behind the camera, told with vibrant visuals from Ung’s unique, and evolving, point of view. Jolie and Ung sat down with Variety at the fest festival to discuss the film.
Variety: Luong, I suppose the obvious question is what was your reaction to seeing your life unfold on the screen the first time you saw the film?
Loung Ung: Happiness and gratefulness. I think I’m just really grateful that it got done and it was made by a friend who I trust. I’m really happy with it. Of course, I was heartbroken to see some of the scenes in the movie, not particularly the big explosive scenes but the scenes of the family sitting together at dinner, that broke me to pieces.
Is it fair to say that feeling of happiness to share your story with the world supersedes the sad reminders that confront you in the film?
Ung: Yes. The story has never been silent to me. It may have been silent to many other people in the world but never to me. It exists in my head and heart and dreams and in my stomach and shoulders at times. So that’s something I’ve learned to deal with over the years and learned to heal. But the happiness definitely supersedes that. I’m so happy that this movie that honors families and traditions will go out and change hearts and minds. Personally, for me, as an activist, I’m happy for that, but as a daughter, I’m so happy that generations of Ungs who will come after me will know something about their history and know that we made this with love.
Angelina, on a nuts-and-bolts level, the visual language of the film is truly dynamic. You and your cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle have found a way to use objective photography to approach a subjective sense and it’s really remarkable. Talk a little about that.
Jolie: Because the book was written through her point of view, that was the challenge. But you realize early on how much that could be a gimmick. What is that? What is a child’s point of view? Technically how to do it is one thing, but the other thing was more about the emotional point of view. Because you can get on your knees and imagine what she sees, and whenever you’re blocking a scene, you have to figure out where is she. But it’s also how she looks at things and what she looks at and what she looks away from when she’s five, and how that changes when she’s nine. So our Steadicam operator, Bella, really had to feel it out. She had to have a behavior behind the camera. If someone yells you have to look away. If you’re just a kid maybe you’re just coloring and start to look at the ceiling, because you’re a kid. To do that but to collect enough information was the challenge. It wasn’t, “Let’s do a master shot and then two close-ups.” We would talk about clues. We would say, “However we do it, when we’re in her POV, she needs to notice these three things.” At the checkpoint, for instance, she notices the western things, the pins, the money — these things are going to be taken. And Pa is going to be different and he’s going to lie. You create this whole world and shoot very free and wild, which is very Anthony, but however you shoot, you have to pick up these clues. But we also talked about the country being a character. That’s why the drone shots were important. It wasn’t just because it was big and beautiful, it was because the country was a prison. It wasn’t one place with walls, it was the country. So to show that and masses of people moving, the entire country uprooted, the sheer scale — we wanted to be very intimate with her, but then very inclusive of the entire country.
It’s also a great way to convey exposition naturally. In one scene lingers on a conversation between the men about the dangers that lie ahead, and you get that information, then she’s very organically distracted by some other children.
Jolie: I’m so glad you see it that way. That was the challenge, how to pick up some clues and information, and know that she doesn’t understand what they’re talking about. And maybe we don’t understand yet. We never say “Communism.” We just see people cut their hair, or dye their clothes, lose some individualism. But we never label it. The goal was if we’re really doing it right, by the time she gets to the soldier camp, you’re actually happy for her. If we can get the audience so indoctrinated and the characters are stripped and scared and starved and alone, but then she gets there and she’s with friends and she has food — hopefully the feeling in the audience’s head is to see how you get indoctrinated.
And we’re also hearing the same repetitive, hypnotic sort of mantras from the loudspeakers in the camp that she hears.
Jolie: Yes, and we even forget that she’s running around in her outfit getting stronger. We forget she’s wearing the exact outfit of the people who killed her father. We’re rooting for her, but she’s switched sides. And it takes her a while to realize she’s switched sides.
Luong, depicting all of this with visual language and everything, obviously this is the world of art and supporting theme on a level, but did it all nevertheless ring true for you throughout?
Ung: Oh God, yeah. It’s so eerie to watch it, the emotions and the anger. And I was happy when I got to the soldier camp. I was given more food, and I felt kind of guilty to have it. And I felt very aware when they put a gun in my hands that it was half my height and a third of my weight. But it gave me power.
It’s difficult to depict insidiousness. I think that’s what has been accomplished here. And also I wanted to talk about color. There are the vibrant sort of fever dream aspects to her imaginings early on, and then how the palette shifts throughout the movie, it’s very interesting. Could you speak to that, Angelina?
Jolie: It’s interesting because one, it’s sort of about that mix of the horror and the beauty, but it was also the ‘70s. And the ‘70s in Cambodia, they had their dancing and their movie theaters and their bellbottoms, and it was important to see what was stripped away. I wanted people to know Cambodia as it was. Not just narratively did I want to show what she lost, but it was just so vibrant. It was 1975, the year I was born, year zero. So it was about, “How can that happen there?” And then to see the color stripped away is what the film does. You start to really just focus on the reds and everything becomes almost neutral and black and white. And again, trying to do it so it doesn’t feel like a gimmick, but it means something and sparks something.
All of these ideas are exciting to play with as an artist and finding the visual ideas that will tell the story. Would you say that, even though this is a sad and harrowing story to tell, that this film is your most exciting creative endeavor so far.
Jolie: Yes. For all of those reasons. And I think I’ve finally gotten to a place where I’ve been learning a lot as I’ve been directing and trusting myself and being more creative. I care about every film I’ve done, but this one because of what it meant to my family and [my son] Maddox. Every day on set you could just feel the whole country. Everybody on our crew was affected by the war in one way or another. You would see grown men cry after a scene because they would remember something. So I feel a little pressure from it, but I feel we are representing a country. And I’m so proud of everybody that’s come together, considering especially that artists were the first ones taken out. There’s a poetic justice to artists coming back and telling the story.
Finally, and off-topic, but my phone has been blowing up with news alerts all weekend and I figure as a Special Envoy to the United Nations you might have something to say about it. What are your thoughts on the potential humanitarian crisis unfolding in North Korea with the ongoing testing of nuclear weapons?
Jolie: I think in general, about engagements in the world — of course it’s always important to protect your country. And this is not directly related to the question, but I’m somebody who very much believes in diversity and human rights and spreading democracy, but I believe in dialogue above all. I believe in diplomacy. I believe a lack of dialogue and diplomacy and education is dangerous. We’re at a time when we really need to be working with others around the world, our partners and allies and international institutions, working together to solve big crises and come together. I want to see more of that.