Angelina Jolie Pitt made her first public appearance at the Cambodia International Film Festival on Saturday as part of a panel discussion on the future of filmmaking in the Kingdom.
The event, In Conversation: Rithy Panh and the New Generation of Cambodian Filmmakers, took place inside a partly filled Chaktomuk Theatre on Saturday afternoon.
Hints of a “special guest” had been dropped in advance, but Jolie Pitt’s presence at the event was officially confirmed via Facebook only a few hours before it began. The actress and director was named the president of the festival’s new honorary committee in late November.
The audience buzzed with excitement as she entered the building along with her husband, Brad Pitt, who sat alone in the back.
Jolie Pitt at first took on a comfortable role as moderator, posing questions to the two young filmmakers on the panel, short film director Ly Polen and documentarian Ngoeum Phally, as well as to renowned Cambodian director Rithy Panh.
It was Panh who posed the question that underscored much of the conversation: “can filmmaking change the world?”
“The way we enjoy life, the way we tell stories, the way we love, the way we communicate, what we dream of,” Jolie Pitt said. “These are the things that bond a society. And without them, there’s an emptiness that can become very dangerous.”
She explained that these themes had arisen during her current project, an adaptation of Ung Loung’s First They Killed My Father.
Jolie Pitt said she sought “to make a film about this country and its history, and not about war, but about the resilience and the strength and the family”.
First They Killed My Father marks Jolie Pitt’s first trip to the Kingdom as a film director, rather than as a humanitarian or an actress. She holds dual Cambodian citizenship, her ties to the country rooted in her first trip here in 2000 to film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Fifteen years later, the Cambodian filmmaking industry has changed, Jolie Pitt said.
Over a thousand Cambodians are working on the crew of her film.
“I believe that this really will show people on a very large scale what Cambodian filmmaking can be,” she said.
“We’re recreating on such a scale what happened for these four years . . . but we’re also seeing now many young people, in a different way, looking and asking many questions,” she said. “I see the youth finding their voice.”
Rithy Panh echoed this sentiment, describing the work of the Bophana Center as a “public service” for a nation with the need for a growing arts scene, and a “new generation” of artists.
“We have to grow something, that you put like a seed in the ground, and you hope that one day, a tree will come,” Panh said.
The conversation often felt most natural – even personal – between Jolie Pitt and the two young filmmakers on the stage.
She and Phally engaged in a discussion about the contradictory pressures placed on female directors for what for so long was considered “men’s work”.
“I wish I were granted the same rights as men, but I’m unfortunately not, so,” began Phally.
“Fortunately you are,” Jolie Pitt quipped, to applause, before going on the explain that it was important that women be supported to claim those rights.
And Polen had the final word, asking her how her experience as a humanitarian, and her time in Cambodia in particular, had shaped her own perspective.
“I’m having the greatest experience I’ve ever had on a film being able to work on something I care so deeply about,” Jolie Pitt said.
“My humanitarian work is now able to come together with my art ... I feel like i’m finally where I should be.”