The film First They Killed My Father begins in 1975 Cambodia, during the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The hard-line communist regime aimed to deport an entire nation into the countryside and form an agrarian utopia — but their experiment failed. People were forced to work, and they were also tortured, starved and executed. In the end, around a quarter of the country's population — roughly 2 million people — died.
First They Killed My Father was directed by Angelina Jolie, and it's based on a memoir by human rights activist Loung Ung. Ung was 5 years old and living with her family in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge arrived and essentially emptied the city. At first, her family managed to stay together, but then her older siblings were sent to a camp for teenagers. Not long after, they also came for her father. Ung's mother decided Ung and her siblings would be safer if they left and pretended to be orphans, so she sent them away.
Ung survived the Khmer Rouge along with four of her siblings, whom she reunited with in a refugee camp. Two of them made it to the U.S., and the others stayed in Cambodia. She says her siblings have all seen the film multiple times. "They can't stop watching it. They know that Angie ... and all those who made the film made it with love, and also made it to honor the lives of not only those lost, but also the lives of those who survived."
Jolie made the film in Cambodia with a Cambodian cast and crew, and it was shot in Khmer, the Cambodian language. "This is their film," the director says. "I wanted to bring the tools and make it possible. ... It would only be possible if we were allowed to be there, if the people there wanted to participate."
On what Ung thought was happening when the Khmer Rouge told her family they had to leave Phnom Penh
Loung Ung: I had no idea where we were going. ... The soldiers, the Khmer Rouge soldiers, came in their trucks with black shirts and pants and carrying guns and grenades on their belts and also wearing huge smiles and screaming to the people that the war was over, the war was over, and to pack as little as we could to sustain us for three days and we could come back after three days. Those were the hopes and the dreams that I held on to. I completely believed that we could come back in three days.
And my family and I eventually ended up at various different work camps moving from one work camp to another. And it didn't matter if you were 6 or 60; you worked. You built trenches, you [dug] dams, you grew food to support a war you didn't want, didn't know about. And we had no say in it at all.
On the last time she saw her father
Ung: This is a little over a year into the Khmer Rouge rule, and information was sparse. We didn't know what was going on; we didn't know what was happening. But we did notice that people were starting to disappear in the village — that a brother over there, or a sister or an uncle or a father were quietly disappearing into the night. So we knew something was up. But my child's heart didn't want to know any of this until the soldiers — two of them-- came to collect my father. And they had, again, guns, and they came in and asked [for] my father by his name and said that they needed him to go and remove an ox cart stuck in the mud.
And I remember very clearly that my father went into the hut and talked to my mother, and then how she sobbed and she cried in a way I've never heard her cry before. It was like an animal caged and not knowing where to go next. And then when he came out of the hut, one by one, he picked up my brothers and sister in his arms. And when it was my turn, I had the instinct of heart to wrap my arms around his neck and to rest my face next to his cheek and just knowing that I would never see him again. And he walked off into the sunset with the soldiers on either side of him.
And I remember also very clearly wondering how there could be such beauty in the world when there was only hell and hurt to my heart. And we were told later that my father had been taken and was later executed.
On coming to understand her mother's decision to send her and her siblings away
Ung: She gathered my brother, Kim, my sister, Chou, myself and another sister, Geak, and told us to leave her. And we didn't want to leave her. I didn't want to leave her. And when I said no, she turned me by my shoulders and pushed me out the door and said, "Get out."
It was the moment where I just did not understand the strength and beauty and courage of a mother's heart. ... For years after this, I thought my mother was weak, I thought she didn't love me, I thought she wasn't strong enough to keep me. And I felt abandoned and I wanted to stay with her. And writing it in a child's voice and to go back into that place and imagine what my mother must have gone through — knowing that if she didn't send us away, we might not have made it here today. ... She gave us a fighting chance to survive apart by separating us and pushing us out of the door. ... I never saw her again.
On how Jolie discovered Ung's memoir while on a film shoot in Cambodia
Angelina Jolie: I went into Cambodia like many people in America: I didn't know what I should've known. I wasn't educated properly, and I felt very ignorant. And one day I was off work and went for a little walk and bought a $2 book at a street corner, and it was Loung Ung's book. And it was through that book that I really understood what had happened. And I was drawn to the way that she had written it, through the eyes of a child, through the experience of a little girl.
On filming from the point of view of a child
Jolie: We had a lot of crew members walking around on their knees trying to figure out what she would actually see, what could she actually reach, what could she do.
But what was interesting, for me, is it was very clear early that the POV wasn't just going to be the technical of where she's at — it was the emotional. Because she's 5, she's very distracted. She doesn't understand what's happening. She doesn't want to understand what's happening. She always looks to Pa: If Pa smiles, it's OK. That's how children gauge what's going on. You don't have a normal scene where you have five people sitting around telling the audience what's going on. So in a way, the audience might be confused a little bit about politics because you're being told by Pa, "It's OK." But you have to check the clues around you and try to see beyond what's she seeing.
On knowing the film could be a trigger for the Cambodians who were working on it
Jolie: It's very sensitive, and we had to be very conscious of many things. Above all, many of our crew members are survivors of war. So to recreate these things, to have Khmer Rouge soldiers marching over a bridge in an area where people are not used to film ... the amount of awareness you have to do, the amount of talking, the amount of therapists on set — would it be cathartic or would it go badly? And it's to the resilience and the openness of the Cambodian people that it went well, and it was cathartic, and I was honored to witness them make it.
Mallory Yu and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web. Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.