“In order to find their lead, to play young Loung Ung, the 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,” Peretz wrote. “The director would pretend to catch the child, and the child would have to come up with a lie.”
On Sunday, Jolie and producer Rithy Panh issued statements, via Netflix, disputing Vanity Fair’s portrayal and defending how the film was made.
“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,” Jolie said in a statement. “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.”
Jolie added that parents, guardians, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and doctors were present throughout making the film, including during auditions, “above all to make sure that no one was in any way hurt by participating in the recreation of such a painful part of their country’s history.”
The actress’s humanitarian work and decision to adopt children from various developing nations has long drawn the ire of those who view her actions as exploitative or emblematic of a “white savior complex” — and the Vanity Fair paragraph about the casting process quickly went viral among such critics.
In the profile, Vanity Fair’s Evgenia Peretz wrote:
“Srey Moch was the only child that stared at the money for a very, very long time,” Jolie says. “When she was forced to give it back, she became overwhelmed with emotion. All these different things came flooding back.” Jolie then tears up. “When she was asked later what the money was for, she said her grandfather had died, and they didn’t have enough money for a nice funeral.”
Panh, the producer, said “recent reports” of the film’s casting “grossly mischaracterize how child actors were selected for the film” and “casting was done in the most sensitive way possible.”
Children of different backgrounds — “some were underprivileged; others were not. Some were orphans” — were tended to by relatives and NGOs and the auditions followed the families’ preferences and NGO guidelines, Panh said. The casting crew showed children the equipment and explained “that they were going to be asked to act out a part: to pretend to steal petty cash or a piece of food left unattended and then get caught in the act,” which relates to a real episode from Ung’s life and is also a scene in the movie, Panh said in the statement.
The purpose of the audition was to improvise with the children and explore how a child feels when caught doing something he or she is not supposed to be doing. We wanted to see how they would improvise when their character is found ‘stealing’ and how they would justify their action. The children were not tricked or entrapped, as some have suggested. They understood very well that this was acting, and make believe. What made Srey Moch, who was chosen for the lead role of Loung Ung, so special was that she said that she would want the money not for herself, but for her grandfather.
But Vanity Fair did not back down from its profile and writer’s portrayal of the process. Peretz “clearly describes what happened during the casting process as a ‘game’” and “the filmmakers went to extraordinary lengths to be sensitive in addressing the psychological stresses on the cast and crew that were inevitable in making a movie about the genocide carried out in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge,” the publication said in a statement, as reported by the Associated Press.
In the story, Peretz quoted Jolie as saying “there wasn’t a person who was working on the movie who didn’t have a personal connection” to the story. Peretz wrote that “some had flashbacks and nightmares. For this reason, a therapist was on set every day.”
Jolie first came across Ung’s memoir while filming 2001’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” in Cambodia. Her time in the country inspired her to learn more about international issues and to eventually become a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency. She also adopted her son Maddox from Cambodia.