The soap opera arrives in Cambodia
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - The sleazy doctor brushes off the advances of a student nurse in the parking lot, but asks her out in a hospital corridor. A male nurse enters a patient's room and realizes she's the woman he ran into with his motorcycle last night - and the wife of the nursing school principal.
"Taste of Life," Cambodia's first soap opera, has all the usual fodder - bad girls, do-gooders, love, temptation and numerous "coincidences" - but it's not just suds galore. The creators are weaving messages through the plot lines to help Cambodians improve their health, teach them about HIV/AIDS and fight stigmas associated with the disease.
"Behavior change is the key," said Executive Producer Matthew Robinson. "If we have not changed behavior, then the campaign's a failure, however popular the shows are . . . we never forget that we're not here just to make an entertaining program."
The 60-series drama ("Roscheath Chiveth" in Cambodian) follows five student nurses and a student doctor as they move through a nursing college, the local pub and "Friendship Hospital." The twice-weekly soap, which premiered last week, was created by the BBC World Service Trust as part of a three-year campaign to help the Cambodian government with its health priorities. The British government's Department for International Development put up $6.4 million in funding.
It's hard to miss the soap's health messages, which come almost on cue.
There's the teenager whose aunt took her for a backstreet abortion. She shows up at the hospital, ill and wearing a bloodstained skirt - a sight that will shock most Cambodian viewers.
Her aunt turns up and a nurse admonishes her for taking the girl to a "bad place," telling her she should have more faith in hospitals. Student nurses also tell the girl that if she's going to have sex, she needs to wear a condom to prevent pregnancy and disease.
"We don't think that's lecturing," said Robinson, who was executive producer of British soap "EastEnders" for two years. "That's involving them in the characters and that's getting the message over . . . in a different way without somebody looking at the camera and just saying you must do this."
The stories will hopefully stir "water cooler" dialogue in Cambodia, said David Wood, project head of BBC World Service Trust in Cambodia.
Then, "they can start working out, OK, where do things go right and where do things go wrong for us, and maybe there's a better way of doing" things, he said. A BBC survey last year found that 79 percent of respondents (from both urban and rural Cambodia) had viewed TV in the past month, and Wood said he hopes "Taste of Life" will reach an audience approaching that high figure.
The "edutainment" soap isn't the BBC Trust's first. Wood said they've had lots of success with "Jasoos Vijay," an Indian detective drama that includes HIV/AIDS messages which won the Indian TV award for best drama of the year in 2003.
"Taste" shows promise.
Nursing student Malay is the show's bad girl. She hates her stepsister because she's a goody-goody.
She makes snide remarks about patients whose bad choices land them in the hospital, such as the backstreet abortion teen.
"I'm happy to perform as a fierce star," said Nop Sophorn, 19, who plays Malay. "I don't know whether the viewers will like me . . . but my act will educate people, too."
The characters also tackle maternal and child health care issues, wife and drug abuse, and human trafficking - all major problems in Cambodian society.
The difference between "Taste" and anything else that Cambodian viewers have seen "is that this is like a gritty, in-your-face drama. It's like you've taken the fourth wall off your next door neighbor's house," Robinson said.
Cambodian TV's staple fare is kickboxing or Chinese traditional movies, and karaoke videos.
"I think this is going to actually hit them between the eyes," Robinson said. "They're going to say, "At long last, there's real Cambodians doing things that real Cambodians do.' "
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