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// Films // The Girls of Phnom Penh

The Girls of Phnom Penh

Matthew Watson / United Kingdom - / 2009 / 64 ' / English - Kamer / S.T. English


Cinzia Baldessari
Khem Sophal & Matthew Watson
Gerard McCann
Nick Cave
Warren Ellis
Matthew Watson, Jemila Twinc, A Sva Khmoa & Jo Rogers
Nati Khmer
Sound Designer: Gernot Furhmann
Music Recording: Jake Jackson
Driver: Hang Ratana

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An intimate portrait of three girls sold into Cambodia's huge sex industry.


Twenty years after the end of the Khmer Rouge’s devastating rule, which left an estimated 20% of Cambodians dead and the country on the brink of collapse, Cambodia is still in recovery and one of the poorest nations in the world. In 2004 the World Bank estimated that 42% of Cambodians were living below the poverty line and in 2009 alone 200,000 will fall into poverty.

Each year thousands of girls from Cambodia’s poorest families are sold into the country’s growing sex industry, many finding themselves in the bleakest quarters of the capital, Phnom Penh. The exact scale of the problem is not known. What is known is that as many as 50% of commercial sex workers in Cambodia are HIV-positive and that brothel workers do not even have the right to insist that customers wear condoms. A large proportion of girls are unconscious, drunk or drugged when their virginity is taken and a significant number are under the age of 15.

It is also known that the virginity of many of these young girls is sold by their own parents and can fetch ‘as much as $1,200’. With many Cambodians living on less than $1 a day, it is an ‘opportunity’ few can afford to turn down. Lacking education or skills, many see this deal with the devil as their best hope but it is one that leaves the girls with little chance of reentering society. An old Khmer adage runs, 'Men are gold, and women are cloth.' That is to say, gold can be dropped in mud and washed good as new, but cloth will be permanently sullied.

This is the backdrop though not the focus of THE GIRLS OF PHNOM PENH, a film about the friendship of three such girls. Srey Leak was deflowered by a stranger when she was 14. Like many Cambodian men, he believed her virginity would increase his good health and virility. Her family used the money to pay her mother’s medical bills. Her two friends, Me Nea and Cheata, opted to sell themselves to support their families and young children.

The film paints a portrait of ordinary girls, little more than children, who share the same preoccupations, insecurities and vanity of teenagers the world over, yet nightly make the greatest of sacrifices. In the clutches of an unforgiving spiral of debt and ignominy, it is a mark of the girls’ strength as well as their desperation that they each maintain they would do the same, given their time over again.

Against the odds, these teenagers offer a message which is at once disarming and inspiring. Despite the burdens placed on their slight shoulders, family pressures, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, creditors and the ever present danger of violence and disease, the girls’ unshakeable bond sees them through. It gives them the courage to glimpse escape, to trick their fate and hope for a better life. Told in their own words, the film gives voice to girls who have no say. In doing so, it provides a lesson about redemption, humour and sisterhood in the face of dreadful adversity and implores viewers to help give girls like them the right to be heard.




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