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Lender singled out after documentary

Some 1,000 employees from one of Cambodia’s largest microfinance institutions gathered in the Koh Pich exhibition hall yesterday to watch A River Changes Course, the award-winning documentary about three Cambodians from different backgrounds all struggling to eke out a living in fast-changing times.

Why Angkor Mikroheranhvatho (Kampuchea) Co Ltd, or AMK for short, bothered to hold a screening at all during its annual conference in Phnom Penh became a little clearer in a scene about 30 minutes into the story. The mother of one of the movie’s subjects, a woman from Svay Rieng province, tries to repay a loan to an AMK employee, who is dressed in the company’s signature purple shirt.

She doesn’t have enough. In the ensuing exchange between the woman, the employee and others observing the transaction, the woman appears to be mocked for not coming up with the remaining 22 cents to cover the payment. She’s told by one of the men to “just bring it”. Someone then describes her attitude as “sassy,” according to the subtitles.

The perceived mistreatment offended one of AMK’s international investors, Oikocredit, at a screening in Siem Reap earlier this year, according to several people familiar with the matter. After AMK management viewed the movie themselves, they decided to show it to everyone in the company (though they don’t agree that the treatment was offensive).

The movie is “not related to AMK directly, but I think that my staff will benefit”, said Kea Borann, chief executive officer of the microfinance organisation, the largest in Cambodia by number of clients, and the fifth in terms of portfolio size, with loans totalling $77 million at the end of September, according to the most recent statistics.

“AMK is mainly targeting poor people. So I think the movie really has something in common with our core target groups,” he said.

But it’s not clear whether any intended message about client interaction was getting across. During the loan repayment scene, many in the audience full of young staffers cheered when they recognised the AMK employee and burst into laughter when the woman was told to bring more money.

Pum Sophy, head of research for AMK, said it was all a cultural misunderstanding.

“For the person who is not from Cambodia, it sounds very cruel,” she said, adding that “for sure” the statements were not uttered by the AMK staffer, but one of the men sitting with him in the scene. “It’s some kind of joke,” she said, which would explain the laughter, “but for the observer in Europe, they don’t understand that”.

The Cambodians who made the movie don’t agree.

“It’s not funny, it’s not funny at all,” said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which produced the film. “It’s not about foreign or Khmer, it’s about how a man treats a woman.”

The director, Cambodian-American Kalyanee Mam, said in an email she knew about the incident, and welcomed the screening as a response.

“I think this is a good consequence of the film, forcing people in positions of power to be held accountable for their actions.”

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