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Angelina Jolie on Bringing the Guerlain x UNESCO Women for Bees Programme to Cambodia

Over the years, working alongside the French beauty house Guerlain, Angelina Jolie has found herself a perpetual student of bees. Last year, in a radical gesture of being one with nature, she posed, bare-faced and stoic, for a National Geographic video as a lazy cloud of bees tiptoed across her body. But a simpler visual is fresh in mind during a recent Zoom from her office in Los Angeles, as she lays out the importance of a healthy bee population. “Thirty percent of our food is from pollinators—that says quite a lot,” Jolie explains, at ease in an unfussy tank top. “There are some images where they show you, ‘Here’s your breakfast with the pollinators; here’s what goes away without the pollinators.’” She laughs at the children’s museum nature of the illustration. “I like simple things like that. I’ve been educated so much, from UNESCO to scientists—but the kids’ plates work for me.” 

It’s the middle of April when we speak, a few weeks before Jolie’s surprise visit to the Ukrainian city of Lviv, to meet with refugee families and aid workers. She is well known for her work as a humanitarian, having served as a special envoy to the UN refugee agency since 2011. A newer role is that of godmother to the Guerlain x UNESCO Women for Bees Programme, which launched in spring 2021 with an inaugural beekeeper training in the South of France and, as of today, a second in Cambodia. The maternal title somehow seems fitting for a humming society revolving around a queen. “It’s nice that you point out it is familial-sounding, because it is,” says Jolie of the tight-knit initiative with an eye to small-scale entrepreneurship. She considers it a privilege to “encourage and connect all of these extraordinary women, and help people understand the work that they’re doing—through to the science and the connection to biospheres and the cultural heritage.”

The program’s expansion to Southeast Asia is something of a homecoming for Jolie. “Cambodia’s very dear to my heart, and it was where I became a mom,” she says, referring to her adopted son, Maddox. She first visited the country in 2000, while filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider—an eye-opening glimpse into a region still scarred by conflict. It wasn’t long before she started a nonprofit organization (in Maddox’s name), which has been focused on removing land mines, curbing deforestation, and offering community support with schools and clinics. “Working with UNESCO, working with World Wildlife Federation, working with Flora & Fauna, we’re all there talking about how much can be protected because it goes so fast,” says Jolie. “So it was with a little bit of urgency that I wanted another program, even stronger, in there.” 

Jolie with the beekeepers in Cambodia.

Photograph by Ian Gavan/Courtesy of Guerlain.

The new six-month beekeeper training, in Phnom Penh, brings together 12 women, with a particular focus on the issues surrounding local honeybees. (In addition to environmental concerns, wild-honey hunting can disrupt bee populations.) Earlier this year, Jolie and a graduate of the 2021 program, Aggelina Kanellopoulou, visited Cambodia, in part to pass along best practices. “This network is very important,” says Jolie of that metaphorical cross-pollination, which she hopes one day might materialize as honey jars on grocery store shelves. “You have this sisterhood in other countries you can reach out to.” 

This immersion into all things honey has invariably shifted Jolie’s relationship to the product. She explains by way of anecdote. “It happened to me when I worked in Cambodia on a film and we [spent time] in the rice fields. I did a course on how much it takes to get one grain of rice.” She likens the experience to a Buddhist meditation. “A lot of us who live in cities, we don’t really think about what it takes to make any food that’s on our plate. So I see honey, and I think of all the efforts of the beekeepers, the bees themselves.” There’s gratitude and love, she laughs. “I put it in just about everything.” 

Ahead, Jolie is set to direct an adaptation of Alessandro Baricco’s Without Blood, a fable that centers on a woman who brutally lost her father and brother in war. It’s a recurring theme in her projects, following her 2017 film First They Killed My Father, about a Cambodian girl forced to become a child soldier during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. “I suppose I’m drawn to the extremes of the human condition—to just being human. I’m very human. I’m very flawed. I’m very raw,” she says, turning the lens inward. “We see the best and the worst of people in these kinds of situations.” If her earlier film was a chance to reframe history—“I appreciated The Killing Fields growing up, but it wasn’t in Khmer, and the hero at the center wasn’t Cambodian”—the new project isn’t about a particular place. “And it’s not clear on who’s right and wrong or good and bad.” 

That blurred morality, coupled with the dizzying points of concern these days, counts as a lot for even an adult brain to consider. How does Jolie handle such subjects at home? “Some of my children are from countries of conflict. Pax is Vietnamese, and we had to adjust what he was being taught in history books,” she says. Her daughter, Zahara, is from Ethiopia, another fraught place at the moment. “So it’s not a new conversation in our home. But it’s continuing,” Jolie says, speaking about the horrific Ukraine headlines as one talking point among many, citing the more than 80 million people displaced globally. Some of Jolie’s children have joined her at refugee camps around the world. “I never wanted them to feel that this is about doing some service to someone,” she says, flipping into her maternal—or maybe godmotherly—voice. “You should be honored to meet with strong, resilient people who are fighting against oppression and persecution, and get to meet them and be in any way in partnership with them to survive.”

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