Oscar winner Angelina Jolie says Vanity Fair’s depiction of controversial child auditions for her latest film set in Cambodia, First They Killed My Father, is “false.”
The magazine article, published online earlier this week, described a casting exercise used by those involved with the film. First They Killed My Father is based on author Loung Ung’s first-person account of the country’s Khmer Rouge genocide.
According to the profile, young Cambodian children from “orphanages, circuses and slum schools” were baited during the audition process.
Vanity Fair’s description
“In order to find their lead, to play young Loung Ung, the casting directors set up a game, rather disturbing in its realism: they put money on the table and asked the child to think of something she needed the money for, and then to snatch it away,” the article reads.
“The director would pretend to catch the child, and the child would have to come up with a lie.”
The story then quotes Jolie: “Srey Moch [the girl ultimately chosen for the part] was the only child that stared at the money for a very, very long time,” adding, “when she was forced to give it back, she became overwhelmed with emotion.”
The description caused many to criticize the behind-the-scenes casting approach as “cruel.”
Jolie fights back
In a statement to the Huffington Post published late Saturday, Jolie, who also serves as a United Nations special envoy for refugees, said the context was misrepresented.
“I am upset that a pretend exercise in an improvisation, from an actual scene in the film, has been written about as if it was a real scenario,” Jolie said.
‘The suggestion that real money was taken from a child during an audition is false and upsetting’ – Angelina Jolie, in reaction to Vanity Fair profile about her film’s casting process
“The suggestion that real money was taken from a child during an audition is false and upsetting. I would be outraged myself if this had happened.”
The Khmer Rouge, which held power in Cambodia from 1975-79, was responsible for the deaths of up to two million people due to torture, execution, starvation, forced labour and disease.
The topic is particularly sensitive in the country, where psychological scars remain apparent.
Cambodian producer details what took place
Rithy Panh, a Cambodian filmmaker who co-produced First They Killed My Father alongside Jolie and who also lost family members during the Khmer Rouge regime, told CBC News the article’s depictions “grossly mischaracterize” what happened during the casting process.
Panh said the audition’s purpose was to improvise with the children and find out how they would react when caught doing something that could land them in trouble. He also said the kids were aware it was make-believe.
“Ahead of the screen tests, the casting crew showed the children the camera and the sound recording material,” he said in a written statement.
“It explained to them that they were going to be asked to act out a part: to pretend to steal petty cash or a piece of food left unattended and then get caught in the act. It relates to a real episode from the life of Loung Ung, and a scene in the movie, when she and her siblings were caught by the Khmer Rouge and accused of stealing.”
He went on to explain that the casting was done “in the most sensitive way possible” and that a host of caregivers, including relatives and NGO members, were nearby to protect children and ensure their safety.
“The children’s well-being was monitored by a special team each day, including at home, and contact continues to the present,” he said.
“Because the memories of the genocide are so raw, and many Cambodians still have difficulty speaking about their experiences, a team of doctors and therapists worked with us on set every day so that anyone from the cast or crew who wanted to talk could do so.”
First They Killed My Father is set to be released on Netflix later this year and will also be screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Jolie spoke about the film and her connection to the story when it premiered in Cambodia in February.