Angelina Jolie is famed across the globe as a humanitarian, but the UN ambassador has been criticised after putting impoverished children through what’s been termed a “cruel” casting process for her new directorial feature, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.
To cast the children for the film, children from “orphanages, circuses and slum schools” were presented with an undisclosed amount of money on a table and asked to think about what they needed the money for.
Once they had done that, they were then encouraged to steal the money – only for the director to pretend to catch them moments later.
When they were caught, the children were asked to come up with a lie as to why they had stolen the money.
The audition process was described in Jolie’s Vanity Fair interview, in which she explained that Sareum Srey Moch (who eventually won the part) was the only child that “stared at the money for a very, very long time” before becoming emotional – apparently recalling real-life events.
“When she was forced to give it back, she became overwhelmed with emotion,” said Jolie. “All these different things came flooding back.
“When she was asked later what the money was for, she said her grandfather had died, and they didn’t have enough money for a nice funeral.”
Jolie goes on to say that everyone involved with the film felt a “connection” to the project to due personal circumstances: “There wasn’t a person who was working on the movie who didn’t have a personal connection. They weren’t coming to do a job. They were walking in the exodus for the people whom they had lost in their family, and it was out of respect for them that they were going to recreate it [...] It completed something for them.
“Cast and crew members reported having nightmares which led to a therapist being recruited. Even bystanders who were not involved and were aware that there was a film being made were reportedly noticeably traumatised.
“When the Khmer Rouge came over the bridge, we had a few people who really dropped to their knees and wailed. They were horrified to see them come back.”
It wasn’t long before people began to react to the interview on social media – and Twitter was soon flooded with complaints describing it as “cruel”, “traumatising” and playing a “psychological game”.
angelina jolie really played a psychological game w/ impoverished kids instead of, you know, just having them audition like a normal person— ellie 🌿 (@vickykrieps) July 26, 2017
Deeply unethical. Rich movie people playing with impoverished kids lives.— Obi-Wan Kenobi (@SirBenKenobi) July 27, 2017
Some, however, were quick to defend Jolie from the backlash, insisting that she was “not the casting director” and that this is “textbook method acting”.
She's not the casting director, she didn't do this. So , she should be defended .— Nadine (@Rosannasfriend) July 26, 2017
Method acting among children is a very common practice. Even in other countries. It's not like they were going to withhold it from her.— Shara Godwinson (@sharagodwinson) July 26, 2017
Jolie has yet to respond to the criticism being levelled against her.
The film – which is due to be released via Netflix – is an adaptation of the 2000 memoir of Cambodian human rights activist Loung Ung about surviving the deadly Khmer Rouge regime, a four-year period in which about two million Cambodians died.
Ung was five years old when she was forced from her family home and trained as a child soldier in a work camp – and the film will focus on this period of her life, with untrained actor Moch portraying her on screen.
“Immediately, I trusted Angelina's heart,” said Ung, when asked why she wanted the actor to direct her story. “Through the years, we have become close friends, and my admiration for Angelina as a woman, a mother, a filmmaker, and a humanitarian has only grown.
“It is with great honour that I entrust my family's story to Angelina to adapt into a film.”
Speaking about the project in a statement, Jolie said: “I was deeply affected by Loung’s book. It deepened forever my understanding of how children experience war and are affected by the emotional memory of it. And it helped me draw closer still to the people of Cambodia, my son’s homeland.
“It is a dream come true to be able to adapt this book for the screen [...] Films like this are hard to watch but important to see. They are also hard to get made. Netflix is making this possible, and I am looking forward to working with them and excited that the film will reach so many people.”
Images: Rex Features