SIEM REAP — Nearly 1,000 moviegoers turned out here in the shadow of the temples of Angkor for the world premiere of First They Killed My Father, the adaptation of Loung Ung’s Khmer Rouge-era memoir directed by Angelina Jolie and set to screen on Netflix in September. The movie is the first of its scale to be filmed in Cambodia with local actors and released in the Khmer language.
Those seated in the back rows squealed and stood to catch a glimpse of the actor, director, and activist as Jolie introduced her film. For a fleeting moment, a speck of Hollywood stardust had come to Cambodia.
The outdoor screening was a rare cinematic spectacle for a country with a population of nearly 16 million and just six modern movie theaters. But the film’s production — which took place in the northern towns of Siem Reap and Battambang over the course of five months — had mobilized a cast and crew of at least 2,000, according to local reports.
The towns were transformed: residents were hired as extras, and many of the technicians, production assistants, and designers were young Cambodians. In sleepy Battambang, the six days of filming closed many of the city’s streets in the midst of the Lunar New Year, causing barbers and convenience store owners to complain about lost business.
Some in the audience hoped that a large-scale production with such global exposure could put the local film industry on the map. “We didn’t make the film for Cambodian people. We made the film with Cambodian people,” said Rithy Panh, the movie’s co-producer. Panh, considered to be the country’s pre-eminent director, saw his own Khmer Rouge film, The Missing Picture, nominated for an Academy Award in 2014 — a first for Cambodia.
He said First They Killed My Father sets a precedent, perhaps for future foreign investment. “The cinema likes stability. Cinema will go to the place that has stability,” Panh said. “That’s why when you shoot a film like this one, with Angelina Jolie… [others] can invest in Cambodia.”
Cambodian cinema has an illustrious history. Between 1960 and 1975, the local film industry thrived. More than 350 movies were produced, often featuring traditional Khmer legends that sometimes drew crowds abroad. Phnom Penh was dotted with at least 33 movie theaters. (One that still stands, the Cinema Luxe, appears in an early scene in Jolie’s film, when the Khmer Rouge roll into the capital’s streets on April 17, 1975.)
The Khmer Rouge regime decimated the cinema. Actors, directors, and producers disappeared. But in the intervening decades, enterprising filmmakers have ushered in its resurgence, often on small budgets. Short films have received top prizes at regional award ceremonies. This week, the seventh Cambodia International Film Festival — which claims Jolie as its patron — will feature two Cannes selections, Panh’s Exile and young French-Cambodian director Davy Chou’s Diamond Island.
Speaking in Phnom Penh late last year, Lord David Puttnam — who produced the last foreign feature about the Khmer Rouge regime, The Killing Fields, in Thailand in 1984 — pointed out that there is still plenty of room for foreign intervention in film in Cambodia. “You can build the industry off the back of an enormous [amount] of expat help,” he said.
The country was in fact well-equipped to host a Hollywood crew, Panh pointed out. Many of the Cambodians on set had picked up their skills through his Bophana Center, which holds much of the country’s audiovisual archives, and the Cambodia Film Commission (CFC). “We were prepared for it for years,” he said. “Through the CFC, we had trained 300 technicians already.”
But none had ever worked on a Hollywood-scale production. “When you spend five or six months on a big set like that, you learn a lot,” Panh said.
Kim Sothea Thangdy, 29, is a drama producer at local television network PNN and had previously trained with Bophana. She dropped everything when she was offered a temporary position as an assistant to a line producer on First They Killed My Father. “I didn’t want to quit my job, but I decided to leave because I just wanted to do the Angelina Jolie project,” she said with a bubbly laugh. “I wanted to work with Hollywood people.”
Thangdy said her peers on set were inspired by the experience, including the artistic and technical demands of Jolie. “I am a filmmaker, and [Jolie] is my role model. I am sure other filmmakers feel the same way,” she said. “I want to make films like her, like that.”
Both she and Yean Reaksmey, a 20-something artist who worked as an assistant in the costume department, recalled the long hours on set — an image conjured when they saw the film onscreen for the first time, Reaksmey said. “All the memories come back: when you get up at 4 or 5 in the morning to catch the van to go to the set,” he said.
Reaksmey had never before worked on a film with so many departments, and said the sheer scale of the production provided lessons for building an industry here in Cambodia. “Here to be on set with a big crew was something different,” he said. “It was a kind of workshop for everyone to understand: from the camera crew to the costume department to production assistants.”
At a press conference a few hours before the premiere, Jolie said she had been taken with the young people on set. “I didn’t know which actors we would find, and I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “I have been surprised every step of the way… This is a country of great artists. And I’m sitting next to many of them right now.”
When a Cambodian reporter asked how young filmmakers might capitalize on their experience on set, Jolie was quick to respond. “I think I would start by letting them answer the questions,” she quipped, to applause.
Over 30 years after The Killing Fields, Jolie and Loung — who co-wrote the script — sought to bring the story back to Cambodia, to let Cambodians tell it. To Youk Chhang, a child survivor of the Khmer Rouge sitting in the audience, their mission was a resounding success.
“The Cambodian identity is there immediately. That was my first impression,” said Chhang, who directs the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the country’s foremost genocide research center. “Even the colors, the afternoon golden light. [Jolie] captured the beauty of the country.”
And in that fading light in Siem Reap, hundreds like him thronged toward the screen — past the red carpet — as the air buzzed with excitement. If a measure of a fledgling industry’s success is its potential to bring in an audience, the local turnout for First They Killed My Father sets a high bar.
“These are people who don’t go to the cinema,” said the young artist Reaksmey. “And they were there.”
Audrey Wilson is a freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.