Khmer Mekong Films founder Matthew Robinson is just as happy producing social-engineering shows for NGOs as melodamatic soaps. And more often than not, it’s difficult to tell which is which
"Message, message, message!" exclaimed Matthew Robinson, as he fast-forwarded through key scenes in his production company’s latest drama. In one, a woman announces that she’s switching from the pill to an IUD. In another, a teary garment factory worker is lectured by a friend’s aunt on the dangers of back-street abortions. “Promise me you won’t go to one of those places,” the aunt implores her. “OK, I promise,” the teary woman replies.
The new three-part drama (working title Taking Care) might look like any other melodramatic soap opera aimed at the 18-25 market but, as Robinson’s frequent shouts of “Message!” revealed, it’s actually something much more: an educational program in fiction form, commissioned by the NGO CARE International to be shown during lunch breaks in garment factories.
“I don’t think they could have made this six years ago, because the Ministry of Labour wouldn’t have accepted it,” Robinson said at his office during an interview this week. “But now that lots of girls are getting pregnant, they have to.” He said the film was “fascinating” because of its distinctly modern tone. “There’s not a single thing in there that says ‘Don’t have sex’,” he pointed out.
Robinson is by no means a social activist. Khmer Mekong Films is a commercial company, and it makes films for people who pay: about 40 per cent NGOs and 60 per cent commercial companies. He will accept most assignments, except those concerning climate change (“I’m a denier,” he said, half apologetically).
But Robinson has a keener sense than most of how Cambodian society is changing. As a purveyor of popular culture, he sees the subtle shifts in society, politics and censorship on a day-to-day basis.
He first moved to Cambodia in 2003 to head up the British government-funded drama series A Taste of Life, which aimed to educate Cambodians about health issues, in particular HIV and AIDS. The 100-episode drama was a runaway success, with viewing figures suggesting some episodes were watched up by to half the population. It was a coup by Cambodian standards, but par for the course for Robinson.
Before coming to Cambodia he was head of drama at BBC Wales, executive producer on long-running soap East Enders, and the man who introduced the unsuspecting British public to TV presenting super duo Ant and Dec, when he cast them in children’s TV show Byker Grove. He was, as one tabloid described him, the “Pope of Soap”.
When Taste of Life ended, Robinson didn’t leave Phnom Penh. Instead, he co-built an apartment block on Street 136, closed the road to deliver his Steinway grand piano to the penthouse apartment by crane, and set up Khmer Mekong Films in the offices below.
“Storytelling is universal, whether you’re in South America, Russia or living on the Pacific Islands,” he said of the move. “You’re interested in people who have journeys with beginnings, middles and ends.”
The company’s track record in producing compelling “beginnings, middles and ends” has been impressive. Their successful TV series include AirWaves, Beauty of Life and Smart Girls – a slick local take on Charlie’s Angels.
During his 12 years in the country, Robinson has regularly found himself at the strange crossroad of real politik and light-hearted entertainment. In 2006, the US State Department commissioned him to make AirWaves – a drama series aimed at improving local relations with the Cham Muslim as part of the global “war on terror”. “They did think this was a potential hot spot, and it’s since moved on,” Robinson said.
He recalled how government interference limited options for the production team. “It was made very clear to us that we could not do anything to suggest that those who were seeking to disrupt society coming from Middle Eastern countries could get into Cambodia,” he said. “The government would catch them at the border.”
Robinson, once a regular on the front pages of UK newspapers for his scurrilous plotlines, said he rarely suffered from government censorship these days because he had a strong sense of what they would find acceptable. So when he wanted to do a remake of a popular Singaporean drama about corruption, he automatically changed the focus from politics to business. “I would love to make a political thriller,” he said wistfully. “We’ve got to make a living too, so there’s no point making stuff that no one’s going to see and no ones going to pay for.”
But Khmer Mekong Films does have a better track record than most in making sure that there are at least some positive messages hidden among the entertainment. The protagonists of Smart Girls are, as the name suggests, intelligent young women.
In A Day in the Country, a one-off drama about arranged marriages that premiered at the end of March, there is no doubt that the women make better choices – and are all round better people – than the men on set.
An upcoming challenge, Robinson said, would be introducing young audiences to shows with “normal” gay characters.
“At the moment, it’s only acceptable to represent them as figures of fun,” he said. “That needs changing.”
It’s a task that Robinson is better placed for than most. Among the many folders of fan mail that line the shelves of his Phnom Penh office are several meticulously catalogued complaint letters from 1994 – the year in which he scripted the first gay kiss on UK children’s TV.