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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - New soap helps battle AIDS

New soap helps battle AIDS


The BBC is training Cambodia's next generation of film production

people. Using three-dimensional characters, strong storylines and subtle social messages,

the new soap opera and its crew are bringing a brave new world of production values

to Cambodian airwaves and revolutionizing local TV production in the process.

Nop Sophorn, 19, Keo Pich Pisey, 22, and Kim Sothea Thangdy, 18, pose in front of Friendship Hospital, a set created for their upcoming soap opera.

BBC staffer Matt Baylis never knew using actors' real voices would cause such a stir.

When the drama consultant for Cambodia's new soap opera, Taste of Life, told locals

the show wouldn't be employing voice-over artists, response was less than enthusiastic.

"I think it will be not beautiful," friends told him.

But Taste isn't going for beauty. Ironically, the soap is shooting for realness.

Diverging from the highly-stylized dialogue, costumes, gestures and storylines of

most Cambodian movies and shows, the BBC's project, which debuts December 16 on TV5,

aims to capture the language and problems of everyday life in Cambodia.

"People are used to actors playing long-forgotten kings in funny uniforms and

soldiers jumping up and down," said Matthew Robinson, a British soap veteran

and an executive producer with the BBC World Service Trust in Cambodia. "Now

we're presenting the real lives of real Cambodians-it's like taking the fourth wall

off your neighbor's house."

The drama, a "Cambodian ER," focuses on the lives of young nursing students

who spend half their time studying at "Kampuchea Nursing School" and the

other half interning at "Friendship Hospital". Each episode tries to deliver

health messages, especially those related to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"We've tried to devise the drama to get the message out to people without being

preachy," Robinson said. "It's a soap opera really, but we're also trying

to fight the stigma against AIDS."

Pisey stands under an umbrella during a recent shoot for the new Khmer-language television series, Taste of Life. Pisey plays a young nursing student named "Nary".

Like all good soaps, Taste relies on cliffhangers.

Robinson said he's used "all the tricks of the trade" to get viewers hooked-car

accidents, love affairs, jealous rivalries. Later in the season, one of the main

characters will even receive an HIV-positive diagnosis.

"We decided to give it to a character who will be very well liked," Robinson

said. "That way people will stay with the show for months and months to see

what happens next."

Keeping it real

But will Cambodians tune in?

"We think they will," Robinson said. "I don't care if you're in Alaska,

China or Tasmania-people like good stories with a beginning, middle and end."

The show's creators have tried to blend western story-telling techniques with local

Khmer flavor. Participants in early focus groups reported that they wanted to see

more Cambodian culture in the show.

"It's woven into the fabric of Taste-someone has a spirit house in the corner

of their residence; there's lots of fortune telling," Baylis said. "Cambodians

are fiercely proud of their culture and they want to see that represented."

Still, writers shy away from the trappings of standard Khmer productions.

Going over a storyline recently, Robinson balked at a female character's extensive

monologue.

"This is way too Khmer movie," he remarked, looking up at his drama consultant.

"Yeah, I was hoping we could get away with it," Baylis replied.

"It needs to go. This isn't how people talk in real life," Robinson decided.

So the script went back for a realness rewrite.

Bei, pi, moui ... action!

While the show may not offer what audiences here are used to, Robinson believes having

a Khmer cast and production crew helps keep the drama truly Cambodian.

"It's written by Cambodians for Cambodians, shot by Cambodians and acted by

Cambodians," he said.

But training the crew was no small task. Cambodia's film and TV industry is still

developing, and there were few skilled locals to choose from. The BBC scoured university

campuses and put out newspaper ads. Most of the response came from amateurs.

"So we chose the best and the brightest" and spent three months training

them, Robinson said.

Seeing them work today, it's hard to tell crew members were students, waiters and

secretaries just a few months ago.

At a recent on-location shoot, makeup artists, directors and tech staff bustled around,

creating a focused but energetic atmosphere.

While actors rehearsed lines inside a car, director Tom Som, 23, watched a set of

monitors intently, looking for any glitches in light or sound.

"When we first started filming, we had to sit side-by-side with the locals,"

Robinson said, motioning toward Som. "Now they don't need us anymore."

Determining that conditions were manageable, Som decided it was time to shoot.

"Bei, pi, moui ... action!"

The crew fell silent, waiting as actors performed their scene, an argument between

father and son. "Action, action" children whispered to each other as they

took in the spectacle.

Then, someone started hammering nearby.

Crew members sighed exasperatedly. "Cut, cut!" Som shouted. The group descended

on the actors, quickly touching up makeup and double-checking lighting. Taste runs

on a tight production schedule, so staff complete their tasks as efficiently as possible.

Several takes later, they managed to wrap early.

Som marked the end of a production day: "OK, cut, happy."

Making the grade

Such organization and planning is rarely found on Cambodian sets. The added effort

shows in Taste's final product. It's typical soap, but with a level of consistent

editing, engaging storylines and tight shots generally lacking in-country.

From sets to dialogue, the drama strives for professionalism. Many scenes are filmed

at the studio, a 2,200 square meter hospital and school constructed for the production.

BBC "had lorry-loads of stuff shipped in and tarted up" to furnish the

hospital, Robinson said.

The building was so convincing that staff had to post a sign on the gate: "Public

notice, this is not a real hospital."

Actual shooting progresses much differently from the filming of Cambodian movies,

according to actors in the cast who have performed in both. Keo Pich Pisey, 22, who

plays one of the soap's leading ladies, said that despite having acted in many Khmer

films, she had never worked on a production with a set schedule.

"This was the first time I had to be somewhere at a certain time," she

said.

Kun Daravann, who plays a doctor in the show and is a veteran of over 70 Cambodian

films, said the high level of organization makes for better acting. In Khmer movies,

actors are fed their lines as they perform.

"Here we get our scripts in advance, so we can prepare and practice the feelings

beforehand," he said.

Going deep

As in any character-driven story, this is essential. And at its base, that's what

Taste is-and what Cambodian productions lack-a storyline with three-dimensional characters.

The creators and crew are hoping this element alone will propel the show to success.

"For the most part in Cambodian movies, characters are ciphers for the plot,"

Baylis said. "But Taste of Life is different. We said, 'Let's create 12 characters

and see what stories grow out of them.'"

Instead of playing merely symbolic roles, the show's actors explore the motivations

and influences behind their characters' actions.

"If you see gangsters here in movies, they're all the same, just 'bad guys,'"

Robinson said. "In the show we have a jealous character, a bitchy one, a loving

one. They represent a range of human emotions."

Maybe they're not overly-complicated personalities, but at least it's a start. Plus,

creators and crew are convinced the characters are compelling enough to get people

watching-and even for an educational show, that's the ultimate goal.

"No one's done this here-created characters people can empathize with, and ones

that will get the fishwives talking in the market the next day," Robinson said.

"Cambodians aren't going to know what hit them."

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