Jolie Criticized for Disputed Article on Khmer Rouge Film

A magazine article suggesting Angelina Jolie used a “disturbing” game to cast a child actress for the lead role in “First They Killed My Father,” the actress’ Khmer Rouge biopic, has been disputed by Ms. Jolie and one of the film’s producers.

The Vanity Fair cover story, written by longtime contributing editor Evgenia Peretz and published on Wednesday, also said that Ms. Jolie, who directed the Netflix Original movie, had hired 500 members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) to play Khmer Rouge soldiers in the film, a decision that drew condemnation from Human Rights Watch.

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Angelina Jolie at Angkor Park during her film’s premiere in February. (Reuters)

The article had a broad focus of Ms. Jolie’s life following her recent divorce, but mentions the casting technique and RCAF soldiers while discussing the movie, which was filmed in Cambodia, in Khmer, and is based on the 2000 book of the same name.

“[T]he 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 article reads. “The director would pretend to catch the child, and the child would have to come up with a lie.”

The article goes on to describe Ms. Jolie saying the eventual lead actress, Srey Moch, became “overwhelmed with emotion” after giving the money back, with the girl saying she would have used the money to pay for a funeral for her grandfather. The passage in the article sparked some outrage online, and raised questions about the ethics of playing such a game with children. In a statement released to HuffPost on Saturday, Ms. Jolie said the passage lacked context and that “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.”

“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,” she said. “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.”

Contacted on Sunday, one of the film’s producers, Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, referred reporters to a statement in which he says the article “grossly mischaracterize[s]” the casting process.

“Because so many children were involved in the production, Angelina [Jolie] and I took the greatest care to ensure their welfare was protected,” the statement says.

Brian Herrera, a Princeton professor writing a history of movie casting, said that while the practice described in the article would not be typical, it would also not be surprising.

“There are very few industry policies that dictate how actors being screened for potential employment should be treated,” Mr. Herrera said. “Casting across national and language barriers only magnifies the likelihood that the kid performers would not have a lot of protections during the casting process.”

After reading Mr. Panh’s statement, Mr. Herrera added, “The account of the process provided by Rithy Panh does suggest that the production was operating in ways that align with the best practices of the industry.”

Regarding the use of RCAF soldiers, Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told New York Magazine that if the Vanity Fair article was accurate, it represented a mistake on Ms. Jolie’s part.

“To ask for permission to make a film and thereby invest in the local economy is fine, and you’re going to have to have some meetings with some government officials,” Mr. Adams said.

“But you can take a stance to make sure you don’t empower, legitimize, or pay the wrong people. And working with the Cambodian army is a no-go zone, it’s a red flag, and it’s a terrible mistake.”

Mr. Panh defended the decision in an email to reporters on Sunday, saying, “In Cambodia, as in any other country, special permits and permissions are required from the authorities before a film crew can block streets or stage a battle scene or explode fake ordnance.”

“There are rules, and they must be respected or there is no film,” he said.

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