Angelina Jolie Played a Stunningly Cruel Trick on Some Cambodian Children for Her New Movie

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Ever since Brad Pitt appeared on the cover of GQ Style, flailing around White Sands National monument, contorting his body to evoke the desolation of the desert or whatever, the clock has essentially been ticking on a complementary Angelina Jolie spread.

Well, that day has finally arrived, in the form of a Vanity Fair September issue cover story and glamorous photo shoot that delves into the actress’ ethos through the lens of her uh, “intense passion,” for Cambodia.

While Jolie seems like one of the rare celebrities whose activism is serious, heartfelt, and genuine, this cover story essentially turns her work into a gritty reboot of Eat, Pray, Love.


The beginning of Jolie’s relationship with the country and birthplace of her adopted son Maddox started where so many profound things begin: the filming of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which took place in Cambodia. Vanity Fair describes her Siddartha-esque realization that not only was life not great for lots of people, but also they still managed to be human beings:

As it happened, the movie, an example of Hollywood’s most vacuous, commercial, shoot-’em-up instincts, was filmed on location in Cambodia. There, Jolie, who’d grown up in privileged bubbles in Los Angeles and New York, witnessed what real suffering looked like: poverty, the loss of limbs from land mines, a generation of relatives wiped out. In this world there was no room for free-floating malaise or self-indulgent antics. And in spite of their profound trials, “I found a people who were so kind and warm and open, and, yes, very complex,” recalls Jolie.

Once again, it seems the biggest compliment white people have for tropical brown people is that they’re hospitable, an extension of the noble savage concept. But at least Jolie recognized that they were also complex. The piece goes on to describe how she met Loung Ung, whose autobiographical book First They Killed My Father Jolie adapted into a movie; how she adopted Maddox from an orphanage with Ung’s blessing; became a citizen of Cambodia, and did philanthropic work for it and other countries.


As the story details the process Jolie underwent to respectfully make a film about a highly sensitive and painful memory of a culture she’s not apart of, working with the country of Cambodia (3,500 Cambodians were part of the cast and crew), it seems Jolie is truly dedicated to the wellbeing of the culture. But that all screeches to a halt with this anecdote about the casting of the main character—a young Cambodian girl—which New York Times writer Margaret Lyons first flagged on Twitter (emphasis mine):

To cast the children in the film, Jolie looked at orphanages, circuses, and slum schools, specifically seeking children who had experienced hardship. 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 director would pretend to catch the child, and the child would have to come up with a lie. “Srey Moch [the girl ultimately chosen for the part] was the only child that stared at the money for a very, very long time,” Jolie says. “When she was forced to give it back, she became overwhelmed with emotion. All these different things came flooding back.” Jolie then tears up. “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.”


“Rather disturbing” seems like an understatement of a response to coaxing children to undergo trauma to see if they were a good enough at acting. It seems incredibly cruel to put this on children who already carry a generation or two of these emotions with them. But of course, everyone involved in First They Killed My Father went through the wringer:

Some had flashbacks and nightmares. For this reason, a therapist was on set every day. And then there were the odd bystanders who hadn’t been aware that a movie was being made, and were traumatized. In one scene, recalls Jolie, “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 does sound like the production dealt with the emotional consequences of confronting what led to the deaths of 1–2 million people the best they could. And I don’t doubt it was healing for many to be in and witness such a cathartic experience, but to undergo these things at the behest of a white woman, even a well-meaning one, sounds exploitative. White actors are constantly praised for the emotion they are able to conjure based on assumptions of trauma while certain non-white actors are acknowledged for simply wearing their lived trauma just right to suit someone else’s approximation of pain.

All this is to say that it certainly feels like Angelina won the breakup, amirite?


Update, 7/31/17: In a statement released over the weekend, Jolie said that the incident had been portrayed in a “false” and “disturbing” light, and that the children had known they were playing a game. Read the full statement here.

Isha is a staff reporter who covers pop culture, representation in media, and your new faves.

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