Fast Forward

Lomorpich Rithy at Bonn Phum art festival. (Lomorpich Rithy)

Fast Forward

Women in Cambodia’s male-dominated film and television industry are in the minority, but they are determined to make their voices heard

By Julia-Grace Sanders

July 21 2017

On a Sunday night last month, almost 80 people sat crowded together on the floor of the dimly lit L Bar in Phnom Penh, their faces illuminated by the white screen reflecting “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” a film that chronicles the feminist movement in the U.S.

The audience, about 40 percent Cambodian, was transfixed by scenes of the U.S.’s women’s rights movement. When the film ended, a Cambodian audience member approached one of the screening’s organizers and asked, “When can we have that in Cambodia?”

The reaction to “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” just one of many films screened during Phnom Penh’s first Feminist Film Festival, shows how film can spread awareness of women’s rights and even encourage viewers to take action. Unfortunately, that’s not what most girls learn from watching television growing up in Cambodia. But a handful of women who have broken through into the country’s male-dominated film and television industry are trying to change this.

Using their own experiences, growing up in Cambodia and now working in the field, they hope to challenge stereotypes and traditional representations of women from behind the lens.

“You need to have long hair. You need to wear skirts. You should walk slowly. You should be a housewife. That’s what I saw on TV growing up,” says Lomorpich Rithy, a TV writer and director for the second series of “Love9”—a weekly TV and radio show for young people in Cambodia—on BBC Media Action and creator of art festival Bonn Phum.

“Even if you have a job, you have to come home and make dinner for your husband and care for the child. It’s a made-up female,” says Ms. Rithy, who goes by the nickname YoKi.

One familiar theme shows up again and again in Khmer films and TV: jealousy. Women are shown fighting over a man, usually a rich and handsome man, says Catherine Harry, the Cambodian behind feminist blog “A Dose of Cath.”

“Women are conditioned from a very young age to be meek and docile,” Ms. Harry says. “We’ve been taught what our roles in society are and how we should not differ from the norms.”

Meas Sreylin, who is working as a first assistant director, pictured on the set of a Khmer film. (Supplied)

The content shown on TV helps create societal perceptions of women and women’s rights, says Chreok Sreyoun, a reporter at the Women’s Media Center of Cambodia, an NGO dedicated to producing radio, TV and video content that promotes women’s rights.

“Media plays an important role in shaping the way women are viewed and view themselves,” she says.

Ms. Rithy attributes Cambodia’s perpetuation of traditional gender roles partly to the lack of women in positions of authority during filmmaking. With mainly men at the helm, women often don’t have the authority to challenge the way they are portrayed.

While the number of women working in the industry is slowly increasing, the majority of leadership positions are still filled by men, making it difficult for women to have their voices heard on issues of representation.

“Men and women have different perspectives; the way they view the characters or the roles are so different,” Ms. Rithy says. “It’s difficult because when you’re one woman out of 10 men, it’s hard to challenge them and fight for your opinion.”

Meas Sreylin, a 28-year-old independent filmmaker with more than eight years of experience in the Cambodian film industry, faced this reality from the day she entered the world of film. At the beginning of her career, Ms. Sreylin landed an interview for a position as a first assistant director at BBC Media Action. When she arrived, the male interviewer wasted no time pointing out the challenges she would face as a woman in the job.

“Are you sure you want to be a first assistant director, because you are a female?” the interviewer asked.  “It’s going to be very tough as a female to run a whole team.”

Intimidated yet determined, Ms. Sreylin replied, “If you give me the chance, I will try.”

On set for her first job as first assistant director of BBC Media Action’s “Loy9,” the first edition of “Love9,” she was one of only three women out of the 50-strong crew. The other two were an actress and a makeup artist.

“Every film set I’ve ever done I’ve always cried” because male crew members often disregard her authority, she admits.

As first assistant director, Ms. Sreylin supervised the entire crew. She quickly learned that she had to censor herself to maintain the respect of her male colleagues.

“In Cambodian culture, as a woman in a top position, you have to talk to people in a different way. You have to find softer ways to correct them,” she says.

“Or I can do it, but only if I don’t give a shit what the person thinks of me,” she adds, explaining that her authoritative instructions sometimes caused personal conflict with male crew members who resented her demeanor.

The simple lack of female presence on set makes being vocal a challenge, according to Ms. Rithy. 

“When you don’t feel comfortable, you don’t feel like you belong. And when you don’t feel that you belong, it makes it harder to put your ideas forward,” she says.

Sao Sopheak, a documentary filmmaker and project supervisor at Meta House in Phnom Penh, says her work is affected by her gender often as soon as someone reads her name.

If she wants to interview a high-ranking government official for a documentary, they read her invitation and see her name.

“When they see it’s ‘Ms.’ they’ve already made a negative judgment,” Ms. Sopheak says. “They think a ‘Ms.’ is maybe a younger girl who just wants to make up a story.”    

It’s clear from speaking to some men in the industry that it may take time to change ingrained preconceptions.

Visal Sok, managing producer at 802AD Productions, an established film and video production company in Phnom Penh, attests to the barriers women have to scale when working on set. “Men in Cambodia aren’t used to women with strong power and the ability to give orders and have big positions,” he says. Male crew members are more likely to talk back to a woman giving them orders or talk behind her back, Mr. Sok says. Despite the often challenging environment, the number of female filmmakers in Cambodia is increasing, according to many of the women now working in the

Poan Phoung Bopha, the renowned filmmaker and Cambodia’s first female film director, has worked in scriptwriting and directing for 28 years, giving her a front row seat to witness the evolution of Cambodian women in filmmaking.  When she first began, she was one of a handful of women working in the industry, but now there are a couple dozen women in the field.

As more women join, the images of women portrayed on screen have begun to change.

“In recent films, female characters are usually portrayed as someone who has received a university education, some even studying for master’s degrees,” Ms. Phoung Bopha says.

This has also manifested in real life, with fewer parents hindering their daughters from pursuing higher education, she says.

While Cambodian film and television has taken a step in the right direction by portraying more women in higher education, Ms. Sreylin says that it doesn’t often show women using that education to pursue successful careers and positions of leadership.

“[Women] aren’t encouraged to think about their dreams,” she says. “Media encourages girls to go to school, but on the other side films show women in the house and in the kitchen and not doing bigger things. I still don’t think film or TV dramas really open the door for females to think differently.”

Encouragement from the media could have helped her as a teenager, she says, when her father laid out her future as a factory worker. “When I was 12, my dad told me that he would send me to be a factory worker when I turned 16,” she says. “This made me think I didn’t need to dream anymore.”

Her father pulled her out of a local school when she was 12 because he couldn’t afford the fees, but fate intervened when an NGO connected her with a French family who sent her $20 a month, enough for her to attend an English school for three years.

More than a decade later and eight years into her career, Ms. Sreylin is hoping to change things for future generations, even if she often finds her voice drowned out by  her male colleagues.

“I find it quite tough to negotiate the ideas [of female representation],” she says. “It’s getting better, it’s more open, but it’s still tough and I face it every day.”

Horn Sreynich, a senior student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Department of Media and Communication, sees film as an opportunity for education on issues such as reproductive health.

“The best way to educate girls is through film and TV because often school teachers are too shy to talk about how contraception works and how ladies can protect themselves,” she says. Her own high school teacher skipped over the unit on reproductive health.

Right now, she says, only a handful of programs on TV such as BBC Media Action and WMC provide education on reproductive health.

“The Khmer Rouge put a hold on women’s rights,” says Mr. Sok of 802AD Productions. “But I think in the future you will see more women shaking things up and moving things in Cambodia. It’s just a matter of time.”

In the meantime, women who are in the industry continue to plug away, hoping to make a difference and provide stories of powerful women to girls who don’t see them elsewhere.

“The film industry can contribute only partly in terms of promoting and empowering women,” Ms. Phoung Bopha, the film director, says. “But at least we are doing something; it is better than doing nothing.”

(Additional reporting by Thim Rachna)

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