Among the ghosts of Cambodia’s killing fields: on the set of Angelina Jolie’s new film

Can the Hollywood star’s Khmer-language film – with an all-Cambodian cast and crew – help a nation to confront the horrors of its past?

One sweltering afternoon last January on a film set in the Cambodian countryside, a local man approached Angelina Jolie with a large bucket of leeches. Jolie peered into the bucket and picked out one of the writhing creatures, studying it as it found its way to one of the prominent veins on the back of her hand and locked on. As it started to gorge on her blood, she carried it over to her nine-year-old lead actor, Sareum Srey Moch, who was sitting in a canvas chair in the shade of a tree.

“This is what a real one looks like,” she said. Sareum wrinkled her nose and stared at the leech. “Does it suck your blood?” the girl asked. Jolie’s 13-year-old son, Pax, on crutches after breaking his foot in a jet-ski accident, hobbled over with his camera to take a closer look.

“Yes it sucks your blood,” Jolie answered after a slight hesitation, already resigned to the likelihood that live leeches might be a step too far for this young actor. She ordered a return to plan A, a box full of dozens of pretend leeches made out of black vinyl and double-pinned to a cardboard backing like biological specimens. The crew experimented with gluing plastic worms of different shapes to Sareum’s leg until both the child actor and Jolie agreed that it looked right. Actor and director high-fived each other and the girl walked back to the paddy field for her next scene.

Sareum plays the part of Loung Ung, who was only five when the Khmer Rouge, as Cambodia’s communist party was known, swept into the capitalPhnom Penh in 1975. Over the next four years, they drove its population out into the countryside, executing all those perceived as class enemies. More than two million people were killed, out of a total population of seven million. Ung’s father and mother and two of her sisters were executed.

At nine, Ung escaped to Thailand with her older brother, and they arrived in the US as refugees soon afterwards, with the help of a church foundation. At 30, she wrote her autobiography, First They Killed My Father. On set, Loung Ung, now aged 46, watched playbacks on a screen with Jolie in a small black tent, next to a little corral where brown cattle were being kept for farm scenes. The two women have been friends for 16 years and Ung, who co-wrote the screenplay, was working as a consultant on the set.

Jolie dates the beginning of her involvement in humanitarian issues to her experience making the fantasy action movie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, in 2000. In that film, which was released in 2001, Cambodia was no more than an exotic backdrop for the action, but booby-traps and anti-personnel mines planted all over the country in the 1970s were still going off. There was a generation of orphans, then in their twenties, and a country still crushed by poverty, authoritarianism and mass trauma. Soon after filming Tomb Raider was over, Jolie returned as a volunteer for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and visiting mine clearance projects. She started giving large amounts of money to UNHCR and became a goodwill ambassador for the organisation.

Jolie was planning to return to Cambodia with UNHCR later in 2001 when Ung’s autobiography landed on her desk. Ung at that time was working for a US Vietnam veterans’ organisation supporting landmine victims in the region. Her office had sent the book to Jolie on the off chance that she might publicise its cause. As soon as Jolie read the book she called Ung. It turned out the two women were to be in Cambodia at the same time. Jolie invited Ung to join her on a motorbike tour of the rugged countryside around the Battambang province in the north-west of the country.

“We travelled to some very remote areas – there were no roads, or hotels or restaurants,” Ung said. “We stopped at the roadsides and ate in people’s homes. And I was so impressed because Angie didn’t travel with an entourage. She will eat whatever, she’ll hang her hammock wherever and get dirty and muddy in the torrential rain.”

Ung taught Jolie the survival skills learned in the camp: how to check for leeches and catch frogs. “We very quickly became friends,” Jolie told me. “We got caught in a monsoon and stayed up at night sitting in hammocks in a pagoda in the rain, which is really fun for the first few hours and then it’s just freezing cold and relentless.”

One day, Jolie spent time playing and talking to children in a school in Battambang. She had no children at the time and says it was at that moment that she decided to adopt a child from the country. “I asked Loung, as a Cambodian, as an orphan, what would she think about that. And she was very supportive about it,” Jolie said. “And we had a talk about what would be important, to make sure he always knew about himself.” Jolie adopted Maddox Chivan, aged seven months, from a Battambang orphanage a year later, in March 2002. “And Loung’s been in his life ever since,” she said.

Jolie and Ung began adapting the book, but then shelved the project in part because Jolie was busy with other movies and because neither thought the political atmosphere in Cambodia was conducive to making a film about recent history. However, last year, Maddox, by then 14, persuaded them to make the film. “He was the one who just called it and said he was ready and that he wanted to work on it, which he did. He read the script, helped with notes, and was in the production meetings,” Jolie said.

In 2011, Jolie made a film about the Bosnian conflict, In the Land of Blood and Honey, for which the cast was entirely made up of people from the former Yugoslavia. The film adaptation of First They Killed My Father uses only Cambodian actors, and the language spoken throughout is Khmer, with occasional snatches of French, the imperial language of French Indochina, of which Cambodia was a part until the 1950s.

“When I said I wanted to make this film and I want to make it in Cambodia, everyone said: you can’t make it in Cambodia. You have to make it in Thailand, like The Killing Fields,” Jolie said. Roland Joffé’s 1984 film was Hollywood’s one major attempt to tackle the Cambodian genocide. It tells the story of a Cambodian photojournalist stranded after the evacuation of his western colleagues, who provide the western point of view for the audience. Jolie’s film makes no such concessions. There are no white characters to explain events in English and she is quite clear that the primary audience is the Cambodian public. The cast and crew are Cambodian.

The film will be launched across Cambodia in the middle of next month, seven months ahead of its release in the US.

Jolie’s humanitarian work marks the third act of her career. Although not the first actor to take this route, she has thrown herself into the role. “I’m doing less film now,” she said. “Not walking away from it all, but ideally doing projects like this one, where you can pull together all that matters to you at the same time.”

While filming scenes that took place in a Khmer Rouge camp for child labourers, Jolie – barefoot and wearing a T-shirt and a large straw hat – strode on to the dusty set after every few takes. It was mid-morning and the heat was still bearable. The atmosphere was of a sprawling, busy, extended family, particularly during the communal meals eaten under canvas. Jolie was relaxed and happy, laughing and joking.

She was clearly in her preferred element, at work but surrounded by close friends and family, and protected – by the remoteness of location and light set security – from the world’s curiosity about her private life. She said later in the day that one of the things she most liked about being in Cambodia was that she would wander in the markets and those people who recognised her, knew her for her philanthropy. “Maybe they’ve seen Tomb Raider but they don’t really watch a lot of movies,” she said. “Really, I’m that odd nice lady who likes Cambodia. If I go to the market, they do recognise me – they just don’t bother me. They say hi.”