Director Angelina Jolie has lashed back at an unflattering Vanity Fair story that indicates her casting staff was abusive and cruel to Cambodian orphans and other poor children. The alleged incidents happened during auditions for First They Killed My Father, a new Netflix film on that country’s genocide.
The Vanity Fair cover story said that casting directors for the film placed money in front of children from “orphanages, circuses and slum schools,” then asked them what they needed. The money was then taken away to provoke a reaction. Srey Moch Sareum, the girl who eventually won the part of Loung Ung, the author of the book the film is based on, was very emotional during her test, saying the money was to be used to help pay for her grandfather’s funeral.
The tactics have provoked comments from observers that the audition methods were needlessly cruel.
Jolie issued a statement on Saturday that the criticisms on the audition lack context. “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,” her statement said. Parents, guardians and non-governmental organization representatives were present during the auditions, she claimed.
The audition tactics were an improvisation based on a scene in the film, Jolie said, adding that no money was taken from the children. “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. “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 Netflix film is based on the 2000 memoir of Loung Ung, now a Cambodian-American, on the late 1970s Khmer Rouge revolution killings that resulted in an estimated two million Cambodians dying. Ung allegedly played the money game when he was caught stealing by the Khmer Rouge.
Jolie claimed Srey Moch Sareum lives in a local slum and was the only child that stared at the money for a long time. “When she was forced to give it back, she became overwhelmed with emotion. All these different things came flooding back.”
Various workers on the film claim in published reports that the children were aware that the money audition was an improvised game that was part of acting.
Rithy Panh, a Cambodian filmmaker and producer on the film, supported Jolie’s claims, saying that calling the audition abusive is to “grossly mischaracterize” the actions. “Because so many children were involved in the production, Angelina and I took the greatest care to ensure their welfare was protected.” Panh claimed the casting crew told the children they were going to be asked to act out a part in which they would pretend to steal petty cash or a piece of food and then get caught.