Activism From the Streets to the Screen

In 1975, when war and genocide burst through Cambodia, Loung Ung was a 5-year-old girl scrambling—like seven million others—to stay enough steps ahead of starvation, exhaustion, disease and the ever scornful eyes of Communist Khmer Rouge cadre, bent on slaughter, to survive. The line between life and death during Cambodia’s “killing fields” was razor thin. An estimated 2 million innocent Cambodians perished before the genocide ended in 1979. Ung’s parents and two sisters were among them.

Now, more than 40 years later, the legacy of Cambodia’s darkest moment continues to infect a nation where farmers, children and beggars missing one or two limbs—victims of land mines—are a common sight. Ung has made it her mission to speak out against the pernicious discs, working for the past two decades to advocate for a worldwide ban on land mines and to ensure that the genocide, and its many victims past and present, are never forgotten.

Her memoir, First They Killed My Father, was one redeeming step in educating the country and the world about Cambodia’s genocidal past. A special international tribunal, in which three surviving top Khmer Rouge leaders have been convicted, is another step. And this fall, the release of a feature-length film adaptation of Ung’s life story, directed by Angelina Jolie, is yet another step to buffer against an emerging generation of Cambodian youth who either do not know—or worse, do not believe—the genocide happened.

As the film continues to receive widespread recognition, including most recently a Hollywood Foreign Language Film Award at the Hollywood Film Awards, Ung talked to Ms. about her life as an activist, author and, now, executive producer of a Hollywood film.

Loung and child actor Srey Moch Sareum, who plays a 5-year-old Loung in the film based on her book.

What led you down the path of advocating for the eradication of land mines?

When I first starting going back to Cambodia in 1995, back then, there weren’t a lot of centers of assistance for Cambodians in need, especially land mine victims. I remember coming out of the airport, and my first experience was seeing all these beggars. They were missing legs or arms. And then I went to the market, and there were beggars missing legs and arms. And then I went to the restaurants, and there were beggars missing limbs. It seemed to me, there were land mine victims everywhere I went. And it really struck me, these land mine victims were really beautiful people. And they could be assisted for very little. At the time, $25 could pay for a prosthetic leg. One hundred and fifty dollars could pay for a wheelchair back then. You put a prosthetic limb on a land mine victim and off they would walk, to school, to farm their lands. So many of our world problems are so big they need so many strategies to solve. This was something anybody could be of assistance with. It enraged me that years and decades after the war was over, and journalists wrote stories about peace, there were still land mines in the ground. I left Cambodia as a child and I always wondered what would have happened to me had I stepped on a land mine when I was 10. How would I have handled it? It boggles my mind, the strength of these children who are victims of land mines. I have incredible respect and admiration for these strong survivors.

What’s the current situation with land mines in Cambodia now? How close are we to having a land mine-free Cambodia?

There are different statistics out there. No one really knows how many land mines are still in the ground. These mines, they are the size of a hockey puck. We don’t know how many are left. We just know people continue to still step on land mines. Right after the genocide, an average of 500 Cambodians were maimed or killed or injured each month. Now that number is more like 1,000 a year.

Every time I go to Cambodia, I am very conscious of not going off road. I’m cautious of being careful. On a trip up Bokor Mountain one time, I was on a motorbike on a road that was being paved. Dirt was being moved around. I stopped to take a break. There was a moment of fear when I looked down, and right next to my tire was a land mine. An actual land mine. You have this moment, you have to be very careful. Be careful not to move the bike and god forbid don’t put a foot down. I don’t know if the land mine was a dud or active. And the thing is, you don’t know. I had a moment where I thought—this is what people go through. As long as there are land mines in the ground, you can try to be as careful as you can possibly be, but there is no guarantee that your next step won’t be your last.

Your book, First They Killed My Father, was adapted into a film directed by Angelina Jolie that has recently been released. There is a scene in which the Khmer Rouge have bombed the refugee camps, and everyone scatters. You flee into a nearby jungle, where you see people get blown to bits by land mines. Why was this particular scene so important to have in the film?

It was so important because when we think of people fleeing trauma, we think there is a safe place to flee to. When you are a refugee, when you are an internally displaced person, you have no home. The land is dangerous, and in the midst of fleeing, there is more danger. When I was running away from bullets, and hoping not to step on any land mines, my brothers and sisters, we ran into the bushes. We felt something stinging us and didn’t know what it was. Afterward, we came out and realized we ran into a hornets’ nest, but our adrenaline was so high we didn’t feel the pain. Had I been allergic to hornets, I would have been dead. All I did was try to escape bullets and land mines.

It’s important for people to realize that dangers in genocide are all around. Sometimes you escape one and land in another. It is a series of trying to survive and survive and survive. It’s not one thing you survive from. It’s multiple things. It’s continuous. You survive the hornets’ nest. Then you survive hunger. Then you survive living without your parents and being an orphan.

You are intrinsically a private person. Why did you agree to have this film made where millions and millions of people around the world are watching it?

I wanted to share with a larger audience the story of love and courage and resilience, and sacrifice and tenderness and joy and spirituality that exists in the midst of war. I hoped the story would reach a larger audience. Film has the ability to do that. And with Netflix streaming services in 190 countries, I hope as many people as possible in those countries get the chance to see it.

During the Khmer Rouge, an estimated 90 per cent of artists were killed. It takes a generation for people to grow out of war. Now we have wonderful artists: hanuman dancers, set designers, actors. All these Cambodian people came together to make this epic film. I was really proud of that, of the talent of Cambodian people. It was a privilege to work with so many fellow Cambodians to make this film, to work with my dream team, my longtime friend Angelina Jolie, my mentor Rithy Panh, and to have the guidance of Youk Chhang and others who brought their talent, compassion and skills to the set every day. This film was our love letter to Cambodia.

You spent a lot of time on set for the film helping in various roles and watching each scene of get made. What was the hardest part of seeing your early childhood get re-enacted in such a starkly visual and visceral way, and what was the hardest scene to watch get recreated?

I was pretty much on set every day for the almost four-month shoot. Before going to Cambodia, I started working out. Because I was so powerless as a child, I was fearful that I was going to be vulnerable (on set) and react. I got myself healthy and in shape. When I got to the set, I knew I wanted to stand up when the big scenes happened. The explosions, and the soldiers marching were jarring, but that didn’t break me. The first scene of the family sitting down together for dinner, that completely tore me apart. It’s something so simple but for me, it was as if my family came back to life in that moment. I have no pictures of my family sitting down together for dinner but in my mind when I think about the times I spent with my family, I think about us together, us nine in a row in a movie theater. I think about us going to temples together. I think about us having a meal together. To see it come to life was so beautiful and heartbreaking and you’re aware of how much you miss that. You can prepare yourself for the horrors and the fear but it’s hard to prepare yourself for missing.

The film was intense to watch and I imagine very intense to be made by everyone involved, from the actors to the film crew. Can you tell a story of one of the lighter moments during the film’s development where there was more laughter than tears?

Khmer people are crazy about food. We eat all the time. There were many, many light moments of the film, a lot of them revolved around food. We have a taste for fried crickets and fried tarantulas. One time, we had a hard scene. We rewarded (child star) Srey Moch with something. We asked the assistant director what she would like to eat. It was crickets and tarantulas. We had one stunt guy, he was afraid of bugs. Our star would just have her tarantulas and throw it at him.

There were many difficult moments but there never difficult moments alone. When I was surviving the Khmer Rouge, I was alone. To show emotion was dangerous. To cry was dangerous. Even if you were standing next to someone, you couldn’t hold their hand. You were always, always, always alone. When we were making this film, we were never alone. We would go to spirit houses together. We would speak and eat together. The movie is a silent movie. You had to be silent to survive during the genocide. During the filming, when the director called, “Cut!” we were full of life. On the film set, we were connected to each other.

Cambodia has struggled to emerge from the war and genocide. On face value, with shiny new buildings and rising incomes, it seems to be thriving. But tensions—socially, politically, culturally, and environmentally—continue to percolate. What does a peaceful Cambodia look like to you?

A peaceful Cambodia is a Cambodia where people can learn from their own history. Where people are connected to each other and people can be heard and seen and have the opportunities to grow their life and their country and their talents and skills. Cambodia is that for some people but we need it to be that for all people.

What can people both inside and outside of Cambodia do to support your vision of a land-mine free world?

In Cambodia, there are different NGOs that support the removal of land mines, and they can make a donation. There are also groups that help victims. Veterans International Cambodia is a great group that has assisted more than 26,000 Cambodians with prosthetics and mobility devices like wheelchairs.

Outside of Cambodia, learn what’s going on and support these programs. I think it’s something we can all do. Instead of buying another pair of shoes, you have so many in your closet already, why not take that amount of money and help a land mine victim gain a prosthetic leg so they can walk for a year?

What should people anticipate from you next in upcoming book or other projects?

My husband Mark, whom I’ve been with for 26 years and whom I don’t always remember to give a shout out towe together are owners and partners of three restaurants and breweries. Our next thing is, we’ll continue to make beers and people can expect our beers to travel outside of Cleveland.

I am also working on a novel. It’s a cross between the walking dead and the Buddhist mythology and a vampire story, so I’m having so much fun with it. I haven’t had as much time to work on it the last couple of years but I hope to get it out soon.


Putsata Reang is an award-winning journalist and author of the true crime book Deadly Secrets. In 2005, she was awarded an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship, which allowed her to return to her homeland, Cambodia, where she began telling some of her own country’s tales. She is an alumna of Hedgebrook and Mineral School writers residencies. She is currently at work on a memoir. Photo by Kim Nguyen.