Angelina Jolie is upset over a recent Vanity Fair profile that depicted an audition scene for her upcoming Cambodian film “First They Killed My Father,” which many people found exploitative.
The Vanity Fair cover story, published online this week, described a “game” Jolie’s casting directors played with children from “orphanages, circuses and slum schools” while searching for an actor to play the role of Loung Ung, the author of the memoir on which the is film based.
In the game, as described by Vanity Fair contributor Evgenia Peretz, casting directors placed money in front of the children, asked them what they needed the money for, then took it away to elicit a reaction.
Critics called the casting strategy described in the magazine emotionally abusive and cruel.
Jolie said in a statement Saturday that the audition scene had been taken out of context. According to the actress, there were parents, guardians and non-governmental organization partners, as well as medical doctors, present throughout the entire filmmaking process, including auditions. She emphasized that no one was hurt by participating in the recreation of the film’s scenes.
“Every measure was taken to ensure the safety, comfort and well-being of the children on the film starting from the auditions through production to the present,” she told HuffPost in a statement.
Jolie, who directed the film, said the audition “game” described in the profile was an improvisation exercise based off a scene in the film. She also said real money was not taken from children during the auditions.
“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,” said Jolie, a United Nations special envoy for refugees. “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.”
A source familiar with the film’s casting process told HuffPost the children who auditioned were aware they were improvising a scene from the film, adding that no real money was involved. Casting directors reiterated to the kids auditioning that it was a “pretend game” in order to ensure the actors did not feel any pressure, the source said.
The “pretend game” was reportedly based on Ung’s real-life experience of getting caught stealing by the Khmer Rouge. Ung, a Cambodian-American, survived the Khmer Rouge killings that claimed the lives of her parents, two siblings and nearly 2 million Cambodians in the late 1970s.
The actors who were ultimately cast in Jolie’s film are a mix of trained actors, orphans and disadvantaged children. Srey Moch Sareum, the child playing the film’s leading role, lives in a slum community and attends a non-governmental organization school in Cambodia.
“Srey Moch was the only child that stared at the money for a very, very long time,” Jolie had told Vanity Fair. “When she was forced to give it back, she became overwhelmed with emotion. All these different things came flooding back.”
Rithy Panh, a Cambodian filmmaker and producer on the film, said, ahead of the auditions, crews introduced the children to the camera equipment and explained they had to pretend to steal something that was left unattended and then get caught.
Panh, himself a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, called the criticism over the “game” described in the profile a “misunderstanding.”
“Great care was taken with the children not only during auditions, but throughout the entirety of the film’s making,” he said in a statement to HuffPost.
“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,” he added.
Jolie’s upcoming Netflix film is based on Ung’s 2000 memoir of the same name. Jolie said in the Vanity Fair profile that there was an “authentic connection to pain for everyone involved” with the film, which will be released later this year. She also explained that a therapist was on set every day to provide support for those impacted by flashbacks and nightmares of the Khmer Rouge’s rule.
Vanity Fair did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment by the time of this publication.
Read Jolie and Panh’s full statements below:
Angelina Jolie, director:
Every measure was taken to ensure the safety, comfort and well-being of the children on the film starting from the auditions through production to the present. 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.
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.
The point of this film is to bring attention to the horrors children face in war, and to help fight to protect them.”
Rithy Panh, producer:
I want to comment on recent reports about the casting process for Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, which grossly mischaracterize how child actors were selected for the film, and I want to clear up the misunderstandings.
Because so many children were involved in the production, Angelina and I took the greatest care to ensure their welfare was protected. Our goal was to respect the realities of war, while nurturing everyone who helped us to recreate it for the film.
The casting was done in the most sensitive way possible. The children were from different backgrounds. Some were underprivileged; others were not. Some were orphans. All of the children were tended to at all times by relatives or carers from the NGOs responsible for them. The production team followed the families’ preferences and the NGO organizations’ guidelines. Some of the auditions took place on the NGOs’ premises.
Ahead of the screen tests, the casting crew showed the children the camera and the sound recording material. 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.
The purpose of the audition was to improvise with the children and explore how a child feels when caught doing something he or she is not supposed to be doing.
We wanted to see how they would improvise when their character is found ‘stealing’ and how they would justify their action. The children were not tricked or entrapped, as some have suggested. They understood very well that this was acting, and make believe. What made Srey Moch, who was chosen for the lead role of Loung Ung, so special was that she said that she would want the money not for herself, but for her grandfather.
Great care was taken with the children not only during auditions, but throughout the entirety of the film’s making. They were accompanied on set by their parents, other relatives or tutors. Time was set aside for them to study and play. The children’s well-being was monitored by a special team each day, including at home, and contact continues to the present. 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.
The children gave their all in their performances and have made all of us in the production, and, I believe, in Cambodia, very proud.
“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 in a statement to HuffPost.
“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.”