Filmmakers Angelina Jolie and Rithy Panh responded yesterday to criticism of the casting process of soon-to-be-released feature film First They Killed My Father, following a controversial cover story by magazine Vanity Fair.
Ethical concerns were raised over a passage relating to how Jolie’s team selected lead child actress Sareum Srey Moch, whom they found by scouring orphanages and circuses, according to the article published in Vanity Fair on Wednesday.
“[I]n 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 director would pretend to catch the child, and the child would have to come up with a lie [about why they took the money],” the author wrote.
Following an outcry on social media and in the press – which included accusations of having manipulated orphans with psychological games during the casting process – producer-director Jolie, along with Cambodian co-director and producer Panh, refuted the article’s characterisation in separate statements published by Huffington Post yesterday.
“Parents, guardians, partner NGOs whose job it is to care for children, and medical doctors were always on hand everyday, to ensure everyone had all they needed. And above all to make sure that no one was in any way hurt by participating in the recreation of such a painful part of their country’s history,” Jolie wrote.
“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. 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,” she continued.
In his statement, Panh wrote that the exercise described by Vanity Fair was part of a filmed audition and that the children had been warned beforehand what it would entail. He added that the purpose of the audition was to see how the children, not all of whom were orphans, would “improvise” when found to be stealing, as the film depicts a scene in which Ung and her siblings are accused of theft by the Khmer Rouge.
“All of the children were tended to at all times by relatives or carers from the NGOs responsible for them . . . They [the children] understood very well that this was acting, and make believe,” he wrote.
Nget Thy, the executive director of the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights, said as long as the necessary permissions were granted by the children’s caretakers, whether parents or organisations – and so long as their hardship is not being used for promotional means without consent – the casting process was not a major concern.
“You need to have the approval or agreements of the parents, or the children or whoever looks after the children,” he said yesterday, adding that the major problem with media representation of children is still that of aid organisations using victims of trafficking and abuse as the faces of fundraising campaigns without consent or regard for the social consequences for those children.
In comments made to New York Magazine on Thursday, Human Rights Watch’s Asia division Executive Director Brad Adams criticised another casting choice also reported in Vanity Fair – that some 500 Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldiers were used as stand-ins for Khmer Rouge soldiers in the film.
“Working with the Cambodian army is a no-go zone, it’s a red flag, and it’s a terrible mistake,” he said, going on to characterise the army as “an occupying force of a dictatorship” that is an “extremely abusive rights-violating force”.
Adams further noted that there is a “moral hazard” in Jolie producing a conscientious film dealing with Khmer Rouge history while having relationships with a government led by former members of the Khmer Rouge – pointing to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who defected and fled to Vietnam and former cadre and current Defence Minister Tea Banh, among other senior leaders.
Calls to the Defence Ministry spokesman went unanswered yesterday.
In an email to The Post yesterday, Panh rebuffed Adams’s criticism and suggested that there was no way to produce First They Killed My Father in Cambodia without working with the RCAF.
“In Cambodia, as in any other country, special permits and permissions are required from the authorities before a film crew can block streets or stage a battle scene or explode fake ordnance. There are rules, and they must be respected or there is no film,” he wrote.
Read about the film's Siem Reap premiere here.