New TV Soap Opera Tackles Issues Facing Cambodian Families

Srei Keo started working in a karaoke bar to help her family, which has been having trouble making ends meet since her father died. Her boss expects her to entertain customers. Unable to confide in anyone, she feels alone with difficult choices to make.

Sophavy can see how depressed her 15-year-old daughter is, but does not know how to approach her.

This is one of the dilemmas that characters will face in an upcoming drama series that will be launched this month on TVK.

Krousar! (or Family!) is a 24-episode soap opera produced by Save the Children France as part of a project to educate parents on ways to raise and relate to their children.

During the next three months, television viewers will follow the lives of three families struggling with some of the problems Cambo­dians face every day. “Just like in real life,” said Roe Chan Bopha, who plays Vuthny in the series. “The father is not interested in his family, so all the responsibilities fall back on my shoulders.”

In the first family, Vuthny is married to Sokly. Through their hard work, they and their five children have become well-off. They are ambitious, but also jealous of each other and arrogant towards strangers.

In the second family, Sophavy and her three children are trying to deal with the fears and stress that lack of money has caused. In the third family, Mony, a moto driver, and his wife are expecting their first child, and are determined to do better than their own parents.

Situations and possible solutions shown in the programs are based on an extensive survey conducted by the French NGO, said Ky Samphy, coordinator of the Early Childhood Program at Save the Children France. It involved 150 interviews with families, grandparents, young adults, teachers, monks and children, she said.

In today’s Cambodian society, “there especially is disarray, a lack of values that we noticed when discussing with parents,” said Chantal Rodier, a psychologist and Early Childhood Program advisor for Save the Children France. “Because of the quick evolution, parents have somehow lost their reference points—they don’t know what model to show children.”

Be it fashion or behavior, they don’t know whether to turn towards traditional ways or adopt modern ideas, Rodier said.

Armed with this information, the NGO decided to launch a project that would include going to villages to discuss parent-children issues through debates, educational versions of popular games, and television programs to be broadcast and become available on cassette afterwards.

Why television? “People spend a great deal of time in front of the television set,” said Ky Samphy. “Villagers may not take the time to talk to us, but they will discuss a program.”

About 70 percent of Cambodians have access to television, said Rodier. In some villages, people will gather around the sole television set to watch their favorite programs.

Once the NGO decided that producing a television series was the most effective way to reach parents, they faced their most difficult task: turning a huge quantity of material into scripts. In order to be effective, the series had to both get people’s attention and educate them, Ky Samphy said. This meant creating dramatic content.

To produce the series, Rodier and Ky Sam­phy contacted Action IEC, a local NGO that specializes in communication research, publications and videos for educational and cultural projects. Action then sub-contracted director Chheng Vanna, whose work has included educational programs for international organizations and whose documentary “I Am a Woman Like The Others” has been shown in Japan and Germany.

Action recommended scriptwriter Aok Bunthoeun to help Rodier and Ky Samphy with the scripts. “Every week for more than 18 months, we would write and meet [with Action and Chheng Vanna] on Saturday morning to discuss what was and was not possible,” said Ky Samphy.

“The series was to mix reality and the fantastic,” said Rodier. At first, they thought of using puppets. Then they decided to use masks. Three actors, who were questioning themselves on ways to handle situations, would wear them.

The masks, which covered most of the face except the mouth and chin, were not easy to work in, said Nou Samdap, who portrays Yaye Som in the series. “It was hard, especially when it came to changing expression, be­cause the mask was always sad,” she said.

The series also features a talking gecko. “He is there on the wall, observing and making comments,” Rodier said.

Each program took one to two months to produce, said Chheng Vanna. “We worked with the personality of the actors and tried to shape their performance to reflect real life in order to draw the audience,” he said. “We worked very, very hard, sometimes forgeting to eat and getting sick in the process.”

Keo Chandara, who plays Sopheap in the series, agreed. “It was not always a bed of roses. We had fun, but when we had to work, we worked very hard,” she said.

The programs were shot in December of 2000 and between March and August of this year. Months of post-production work followed as Rodier and Ky Samphy saw their concept come to life on the screen.

“It was scary at times,” said Rodier. “A gecko that talks, would that work? It was a challenge.”

Rodier and Ky Samphy had never been involved in television production. “We did not know what we were getting into,” said Rodier. “We learned as we went.”

They are already thinking of future educational series on issues such as domestic violence and AIDS prevention. But they won’t make definite plans until they get feedback from Cambodian audiences around the country, they said.

Each episode will air twice. Broadcast dates have not yet been determined.

(Additional reporting by Ham Samnang.)


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