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
"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
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.
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."