Visiting author Loung Ung: surviving the Khmer Rouge


Photo courtesy of Dickson Lee of South China Morning Post

A few months ago, I sat down with Loung Ung and discussed what it was like to work with Angelina Jolie on the Netflix original film “First They Killed My Father.” The production was based on Ung’s own memoir and the ups and downs Ung had experienced throughout the writing process.

The elaborate process of writing Ung’s bestselling autobiography, “First They Killed My Father,” was a very personal and heart-wrenching journey. “The book was a very isolating experience,” she said. “The scene of all my family members dying, you know, it was hard for me to write about my father and my mother. I don’t know exactly what happened to them. I don’t know the exact date.”

As a writer, Ung explains how mentally taxing it was for her to be faced with the past memories she had. “What the eyes don’t see the mind makes up many scenarios, and so I had many many different scenes in my head of what might have happened to my family during the war and it was very upsetting for me,” she said.

“we were on it together, we came together.”
— Loung Ung, January 2019

When writing the memoir, Ung did not hesitate to put down on paper all the rawest moments of her life. “I chose the hardest one, I wanted people to know that it all exists in my head,” she said.

Crafting this memoir brought upon flashbacks and memories for Ung, and the hardest part for her to write about was her mother and sister. “It breaks my heart to contemplate: were they together? Did my mother see my sister first? did my mother see my sister being dragged away?” she said.

Years after the book was published, Angelina Jolie decided to direct a film based on the memoir Ung wrote. Besides the film, which brought Ung and Jolie together, they also have a great friendship beyond work. “We have been friends for many years, and I’ve always known and trusted her as a woman, as a humanitarian, as a mother, as an activist, as a friend,” she said. Ung mentions how she and Jolie were friends before the film was created. “I know her well, I love her, and to have the opportunity to work with her as a filmmaker—that was new. I’ve never done that before.”

As the writer of “First They Killed My Father,” Loung felt obligated to express the unique Khmer culture and people. Ung also explains how glad she felt when Jolie wanted to make “First They Killed My Father” a Cambodian film. “I’m so proud that the film was made in Cambodia, with an all Cambodian cast in the Khmer language, with thousands of Cambodian actress, costume designers, makeup artists, hairdressers, and lighting person.” she said.

“I’m also proud of the fact that the Cambodians came together to do it, it was very painful for a lot of them. I was on the set where many Cambodians were crying and having memories—bad memories of losing their parents or grandparents—just like me,” she said. “But they came together, and they think this is important to do, and we were on it together, we came together.” Besides having an all-Cambodian cast, many of the actors actually survived through the war themselves, making this Cambodian “reunion” all the more special. “I feel very proud that we Cambodians, with Angelina Jolie, with writers like me, can put this film together,” she said.