Angelina Jolie's newest film is a family affair. The filmmaker's eldest son, Maddox Jolie-Pitt, is originally from Cambodia, and the new movie — on whose production he was involved — is all about the Southeast Asian country. The movie, called First They Killed My Father, takes place in the 1970s during the bloody reign of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, but is First They Killed My Father a true story?
The movie is set in Cambodia in 1975, after the Khmer Rouge took over the country by force and began their genocidal campaign that would terrorize the nation for the next four years. So the events and time period of the film line up quite well with reality, and it turns out the people in the film do, too. The movie is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by author Loung Ung, a native Cambodian who was just five years old when Pol Pot took control of her country. She lived in the capital of Phnom Penh, where her father was a government official, and her family was forced to go on the run for fear of being killed. The movie follows their plight, with young Cambodian newcomer Sareum Srey Moch taking on the role of Ung herself.
The film was co-written by Jolie and Ung, and Ung also acted as a consultant on the set, which suggests that the author wanted to make sure her family's story was told as truthfully as possible. Jolie also strove for authenticity in the picture — filming in Cambodia, having the dialogue be in the Khmer language, and utilizing an entirely Cambodian cast and crew — according to The Guardian's Julian Borger. During the Killing Fields, as the genocidal efforts of the Khmer Rouge came to be known, over a quarter of Cambodia's population was killed. Ung lost her father — hence the title of the film — along with her mother and two of her sisters.
Ung took Moch under her wing during filming, giving the then-nine-year-old advice for authenticity and bonding with her on set. This was important given the difficult portrayals Moch was asked to do in the film, such as spend time in a child labor camp like Ung did, and it was likely the bond between the pair that helped the young actor get through difficult scenes. "When I met Mini-Me, we were both trying to suss each other out. We would walk around each other like roosters," Ung told The Guardian. "Mini-Me would do something and I would look at Angie and say: I do that!"
Another big contributor of on-set help was Jolie's co-producer on the film, Rithy Panh. Panh is another survivor of the Khmer Rouge, who like Ung, saw the bulk of his family killed and spent time in a child labor camp. He has since made a name for himself as a documentary filmmaker, with his films showing the struggles facing Cambodia both today and in the past — mostly through the lens of how they've been affected by the Khmer Rouge. He discussed why he chose to work with Jolie on her film, telling the Financial Times' Michael Peel, "Angelina is someone who loves Cambodia sincerely, who loves Cambodia very much. She has a humility. She was not someone who came to make a film about us. She came to make a film with us."
It's clear from all involved that First They Killed My Father is not only a movie based on a true story, but one that went to great efforts to tell that story in the most accurate way possible.