By Jack Martin
When she was seven, Loung Ung and her family were fleeing their home in the capital city of Cambodia, laden with the few possessions they could carry, trying to escape the grasp of the rogue communists who were rampaging and killing. For five years, Ung worked in labor camps training as a child soldier. 35 years later, she and Angelina Jolie have brought her story to the screen.
Since her graduation from St. Michael’s in 1996, Ung has become one of the college’s most celebrated alumni. She began writing her memoir First They Killed My Father while she was a student. It has just been turned into a Netflix original movie, co-written by Ung and Jolie who also directed the film. The film was selected as the Cambodian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming 90th Academy Awards.
In a conversation over the phone, Ung reflected on her story, the process of turning her book into a movie, and how she reacted to seeing her story on screen.
Q: What was life like in Cambodia for you as a child before the invasion of the Khmer Rouge?
I was born in a Cambodia that was very vibrant with colors and beauty and architecture and a civilization that built the largest religious complex in the world the Angkor Wat. My father was a military officer and my mother was a housewife and domestic engineer and so our lives were very privileged. I grew up with three brothers and three sisters and was able to go to school t six days a week studying Chinese, Cambodian, French, and English, and on the day off we went to movie theaters, concerts, temples. So our lives weren’t very different from the lives of other children around the world, but that came to an end on April 17, 1975 when the Khmer Regime took over the country.
Q:You and your family were forced to flee from your home in Phnom Phen and were forced to separate. How did life change for you as an 7-year-old?
Phnom Penh was populated by over 2 million people, and we were all forced to flee from our homes. The entire city was evacuated within 72 hours. All the cities in Cambodia were evacuated and people were told to pack up as little as we could, pots and pans and clothes, and whatever belongings we could carry, and move into the countryside.
So the next almost four years we were forced to live our lives like that of kids in labor camps where everyday was a Monday and every Monday was a work day and it didn’t matter if you were 6 or 60. You would dig trenches and grew food to support a war you didn’t want, didn’t know about, didn’t vote for and you had no say whatsoever on it.
In the meantime, all the food went to support soldiers fighting a war we didn’t want, that meant that the citizens were going hungry and those who did not agree with the philosophy of the Khmer Rouge, which was that we were gonna build Cambodia and kick out all the foreigners and be master of our own domain per se, were enemies of the state. And how they dealt with enemies of the state was they purged them, or crushed them. Purging them, meant they sent soldiers out into the countryside and into the villages and one by one rounded up the fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers who could speak out and they had these people executed, and then they crushed the enemies by threatening their families.
We moved from one village to another always trying to stay safe and invisible, and by the end of the regime, it had claimed the lives of both my parents and two of my sisters.
Q: When were you able to come to the United States?
My siblings and I were reunited when the genocide finally ended. With my oldest brother Ming and his wife, we left Cambodia in 1980 and emigrated to America, to Vermont of all places. We knew nothing about America at the time, this was before the internet and instagrams and instant messagings, so we had no visuals of Vermont or America. The few times I had seen pictures of America was when the refugee workers would show films in the camps in Thailand, where plotlines often took place in big cities like Chicago or New York, and people are very diverse with different ethnicities, and hair colors, and rollerskating in big cities, and then we arrived in Vermont. [Laughs].
It was June of 1980 and we were so cold. Needless to say I don’t think Iever warmed up while in Vermont, but we loved Vermont and it was a great place to grow up. I loved the people, I loved Church Street, I loved Ben and Jerry’s, I loved the community of Vermont and that’s something I missed growing up in Asia.
Q: In 2000, you wrote a memoir about your experience which has just been adapted into a film on Netflix. When were you first approached about turning it into a film?
I actually started writing the first draft of my book as a series of journal entries and articles when I was a student at St. Michael’s College. When it came out in 2006, I was working in Cambodia for Veterans International, an NGO that produces artificial legs, and limbs, and wheelchairs for victims of war. At the same time this actress Angelina Jolie, who hopefully some of your readers will know who she is, was filming a movie called Tomb Raider in Cambodia. She happened to pick up a $2 copy of my book while there, read it, called me up and we became friends. Ever since then, through the years we’ve had conversations about turning First They Killed My Father into a movie.
Q: Did Jolie need to persuade you to turn the book into a movie?
As the writer, I was happy to have my book as a book…and I always thought that if it were to be turned into a movie, it was going to be done with the right people, the right team, the right intention and the right partner, or else it was not going to be done at all. So when Angie called me up a few years ago and was like “Let’s do it! I was thrilled because she and Rithy Panh the producer in Cambodia were my dream team.
It was also very heartbreaking. I was in Cambodia for the five month long shoot, I was on the set every day, and it is very heartbreaking and very redemptive to be on a set with sometimes hundreds and sometimes thousands of people whom you knew were either survivors themselves or were related to or were sons and daughters of people who survived the genocide. So I knew I was not alone. When your heart breaks, there was always someone there with you who had their heart broken as well and could be there to pick you up.
Q: This movie was shot entirely in Cambodia, and is the largest project ever filmed there. Did you insist on filming in Cambodia?
I wanted it to be shot in Cambodia and to be shot in my language and it just so happens that the director is one of my best friends in the world [laughs], and we talked about this, and she agreed.
Angie and I co-wrote the screenplay together, so conversation was really easy because whenever I had thoughts or questions all I had to do was walk over to her room. However I think we were all really grateful to be able to shoot in Cambodia because in addition to making a wonderful film, we were able to connect with the land, to the people, to the nation, and we found it to be a wonderful experience.
Q: Was it difficult to adapt your book into a screenplay?
When you’re writing a book, you are describing everything including your five senses, your thoughts, your intuition, your faith, but when you write a screenplay you need to tone everything down. You need to allow the cinematographer to put his stamp on the project, and give the actors, and the composers freedom as well. So writing a book is being able to put everything in, and to take the story and bring it to life. Writing a screenplay is the process of taking everything out and trusting your collaborators to be part of the process and bring everything to life.
Q: Were you part of the casting process at all especially for the casting of a young you?
That was the one area of the process that I chose not to be involved. I just couldn’t do it. Could you imagine?
Everything you do in life, you put a stamp or an imprint of who you are, and I just thought that it would be too emotional to cast people to play my siblings or myself. Myself might have been alright but it would have been too difficult to cast my parents and in some way, I just didn’t want to betray them and betray their spirits. I just felt like they are who they are and they will always be who they are to me, and to look for those qualities in actors just felt a little too strange.
Q: Were parts of the movie hard for you to watch?
Going into it I thought it was going to be the bombings and the horrors, and the wars, and I was prepared for those. What I was not prepared for, were the moments of beauty and joy, and they were going to make it so I couldn’t sleep. Starting from the opening scene, where you have the family gathering for dinner, for me it was like my family came back to life for the last time. I don’t have images of them, and the last time my family was able to sit down together for dinner, since then our family has been shattered and broken. To see that was just shattering and heartbreaking and it made me miss them that much more.
Q: The movie ends with the line, “A daughter of Cambodia remembers, so the world will never forget.” Do you think that this is an event in history that has been forgotten by the world?
Most definitely. During the Vietnam war, journalists wrote about the war in Vietnam like it was the main event and Cambodia was often written about and spoken about like a slide show. I think very few people knew what happened in Cambodia So I hope that for the rest of the audience it is something that they will remember, and for the Cambodians it is something that will make them feel honored, and never forgotten. The people of Cambodia have never forgotten the hardships and they’ve never forgotten the love or the family or the sacrifice or the grace. So for me I also hope that people not only remember the horrors of war and genocide, but also the beauty and the strength of Cambodia as a nation.
Loung Ung’s film First They Killed My Father is available for streaming on Netflix. Since the film’s release, Ung has been keeping busy running several restaurants and microbreweries in Cleveland with her husband, while also working on a new novel. At the close of our conversation, Ung mentioned how she still has much love for the college “ It not only is a place where you can meet like minded people, but it also fosters your faith and belief in principles of social justice and making a difference in our world.”