I’ve been having imaginary arguments with myself for the past 24 hours about this Angelina Jolie stuff. Like, part of me is so angry that Angelina Jolie – who is usually so image-conscious – has already screwed up so badly in how she talks about her new film, First They Killed My Father. The story about casting the child actors for the film has come across as exploitative, and even worse, it likely WAS exploitative. And now this. The Executive Director of Human Rights Watch has given an interview about how Angelina should not have worked with the Cambodian government at all, and especially not the Cambodian army.
Angelina Jolie has been widely criticized for the news that she cast her new film — First They Killed My Father, an adaptation of Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir about the Cambodian genocide — by playing a game where she gave and then took away money from impoverished Cambodian children. But to those who study the region, there is an even more concerning revelation from the piece: that Jolie reportedly worked with the repressive Cambodian government and military in order to make the film.
According to the Vanity Fair piece: “Cambodia went all in — closing off Battambang for days, giving the filmmakers permits to land in remote zones, providing them with 500 officials from their actual army to play the Khmer Rouge army.”
Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, says that if the detail about 500 soldiers is correct, that raises serious concerns. “To ask for permission to make a film and thereby invest in the local economy is fine, and you’re going to have to have some meetings with some government officials. But you can take a stance to make sure you don’t empower, legitimize or pay the wrong people. And working with the Cambodian army is a no-go zone, it’s a red flag, and it’s a terrible mistake,” he said. “This is an army that is basically an occupying force of a dictatorship, it’s used to put down environmental activists — the kind of thing that she stands for is in direct contrast to what this government is.”
Adams points out that there would have been ways for Jolie to film in Cambodia while still avoiding involvement with the Cambodian army, “which continues to be an extremely abusive rights-violating force.” For instance, she could have hired extras to play the part of Khmer Rouge soldiers.
“There’s moral hazard in having any relationship or dealings with the Cambodian government,” Adams continues. “It’s not clear whether she understands that and it’s not clear whether she cares about it.” He points to the fact that the Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, is a dictator who has a record of killing, exiling, jailing, and threatening political opponents, and that Hun Sen, as well as other country leaders including the defense minister and head of the military, are former members of the Khmer Rouge. “This film is about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, yet she is dealing with former Khmer Rouge, and apparently in a noncritical way,” he said.
When Angelina was in Cambodia to promote the film a few months ago, she had a big premiere which was attended by the King of Cambodia Norodom Sihamoni. Ahead of filming the movie (in 2015), Angelina met with Prime Minister Hun Sen and presumably got permission to film extensively in Cambodia. She’s also a Cambodian citizen – she was given honorary citizenship to Cambodia years ago. She maintains a home there, a home which sits close to a 120,000 acre wildlife preserve which she created and funds. She also funds the Maddox Chivan Children’s Center (MCCC) for HIV Infected and Affected Children in Cambodia.
What’s my point? Angelina made the choice many years ago that she would rather try to do the best work she can in politically tricky areas, and she believes that not everything is black and white. This isn’t a situation where Angelina is, like, performing for dictators to get a fat paycheck. She’s not getting rich off of First They Killed My Father. She’s also not dropping in for a month and never coming back – she has roots in Cambodia and she’s as familiar with the history of the Khmer Rouge as Human Rights Watch. I find this patronizing: “It’s not clear whether she understands that and it’s not clear whether she cares about it.” She knows. She’s just making the choice to focus on making her movie and making it realistic. And if she had, say, moved production to Vietnam or Canada, everybody would have had a field day with that and how inauthentic she was being and how the film should have more of authentic Cambodia in it. These are the arguments I keep having with myself: should Angelina “explain” her choices – from that terrible casting story to this Cambodian-military story – or should she just accept that people are going to climb up her ass over everything, and that she’s given them some perfect reasons to do so this time?
Photos courtesy of Getty.