Filmmaking Students Allege Sexual Harassment by Bophana Center Trainers

A camera on a tripod. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
A camera on a tripod. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

Female filmmaking trainees are speaking out about alleged sexual harassment at a Bophana Center training program — including inappropriate conversations on field trips and touching they felt uncomfortable with — saying they don’t want it to keep happening to other women.

Three recent trainees spoke of their experiences at nearly yearlong documentary-filmmaking programs at the center. Two core trainers had engaged in behavior that made the women in their 20s uncomfortable, the trainees said.

The trainees said they put up with discomfort for the duration of their training in part because they were under contracts that paid them a $5 daily allowance and reimbursement for gasoline — which the center had warned they would need to pay back if they quit.

One trainee said she did not think the organization would take a complaint seriously: She had previously asked the organization about a concerning social media comment and was told to focus on studying.

Bophana Center’s director and the two trainers initially responded to the allegations via interviews at the center on Wednesday. The director said the center had been notified of some of the allegations in late October through a donor. The center took the issue of sexual harassment seriously and was shocked by the accusations, he said. The two trainers would be moved to other, non-public-facing tasks pending further investigations, he said.

He added that some physical contact was a part of guiding trainees to handle camera and sound equipment. Trainees had been warned of this aspect, and no staff member had seen any unprofessional touching happening at the center, he said, though he added that the organization would nevertheless look for ways to mitigate physical contact between opposite genders.

Later, the center sent VOD an email asking the article to be withheld from publication pending further investigations. It still only knew the details of allegations “in the vaguest of terms” and “[a]ny article published about this now might also compromise the investigation, as well as lead you to publish information that amounts to defamation,” it said.

The Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center is a leading film institution in the country, maintaining historical film archives and providing training funded by international organizations.

The period of the alleged harassment told by the three trainees stretches from the past couple of years through this September.

The three trainees variously said they were made to feel some of the touching or sexual suggestions were normal because it was done in the open or presented as jokes. They often felt uncertain whether their discomfort was legitimate and whether the trainers’ actions should be called out as sexual harassment. But several of the trainees talked about experiences of harassment among each other, they said.

A gender advocate in Cambodia pointed out that teachers have power over their students, which can lead to feelings of uncertainty, and what mattered was whether the women felt the actions were unwelcome. Overseas research has also found that women find it hard to come forward especially when the harassers are in positions of power, and even when they do they routinely downplay or deny the gravity of the situation.

The trainees said they did not want those harassers’ names made public at this time. One said she was hoping that the center’s disciplinary action would be enough to change their behavior. Another said she was afraid of facing one of the trainers in the future.

One of the three trainees initially agreed to be named, saying she wanted the accusations taken seriously and prevented in the future. But on Friday she said she had since seen apology messages from Bophana Center in group chats and no longer wanted the center to know she was among those speaking out.

She said she regretted joining her training course, which was this year supported by BBC Media Action, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Her two main trainers often pinched her stomach and thighs during classes and petted her head while working on computers. They did the same to the other trainees, both male and female, she said. Female trainees made up about half of the class of around a dozen.

Because all the trainees — both male and female — were being touched, sometimes she did not think it was harassment, just the trainers being friendly. But she was still uncomfortable. She gave contradicting views of the behavior during interviews. “If it was only me, I would think it was harassment,” she said at one point. She finished the course at the end of September. “I’ve gotten over it now.”

The trainee said she had never allowed strangers to touch her body in that way before coming to Bophana, and it caught her by surprise.

“Only my sister touched me when teasing each other. But neither my male nor female friends would ever play like that,” she said.

She never complained about the touching, saying she felt she could not dare to raise the issue while studying under the trainers. But she didn’t want anyone else to go through the experience.

“I want to speak out if anyone encourages me to do so, because it is not right. They can do that to male students, but this isn’t acceptable for female students,” she said.

A second trainee, who declined to be named, said she was excited when she was selected to train at Bophana to become a filmmaker following a rigorous interview process. During orientation at the start of the program, a guest speaker from BBC Media Action spoke to both trainers and trainees about proper conduct during filmmaking — such as avoiding naked images of children as well as appropriate communication and behavior — and she felt confident she would be treated well.

Her initial disappointment was not related to sexual harassment, but due to frequent yelling by a third male trainer who was not involved in the physical harassment. There were around four core trainers, all male, plus several coordinators that included women, according to the center.

The trainer likely thought he was pushing the trainees to be better, “but I felt scared and didn’t want to continue anymore,” she said. Her contract made her put up with the verbal abuse, she said.

Then during a field trip to Kandal province early this year, one of the two Bophana staffers accused of sexual harassment, a married man, told her stories about sex and flirted while driving her to the field on a motorbike, she alleged. Then as they rode back to Phnom Penh, with her on the back, the trainer felt her thigh and asked if she had a husband or boyfriend and if she had ever slept with him, she said. She felt scared but didn’t react, just hoping that nothing would happen to her, she said.

That night, the trainer called her, but she didn’t answer the phone. She tried to avoid him in the future.

“I didn’t feel good at all. I might be able to protect myself, but other women [might not]. He might do the same thing, and how many women will become victims?” she said.

The trainer on Wednesday responded to the allegations by acknowledging they had ridden the motorbike together. He told VOD that he and the trainee had spoken about family life and personal topics, and he thought it was OK to talk about more personal things and asked her whether she had a boyfriend. When she said yes, he asked if she had had sex with him, the trainer said. He had only tapped her leg later when he realized they had driven too far down a road, he said. He had called the trainee to make sure she was home safe, and she had picked up, he said.

“In this career usually we communicate and don’t mind each other. But during that circumstance if I made a mistake, I’m sorry. I didn’t expect that.”

At one point during the course, the trainee raised a concern to the center’s director about a Facebook comment on Bophana’s page in January 2021 accusing a former male student of bad behavior toward a woman. But the director told her to focus on studying, and the comment was soon removed, so she later hesitated to raise concerns about sexual harassment she faced, she said.

The director told VOD on Wednesday that the Facebook comment was about a former student and an incident that did not happen at the center. He said he meant to advise the trainee to not use her phone during classroom hours.

“I didn’t know how to tell the institute, because I previously told them about a bad comment on Facebook. He rejected me and told me to focus on studying. I think they won’t care about the harassment,” the trainee said.

The third trainee began the course at Bophana in a different year, when it was funded by different donors. She also said that she wanted to drop out of the course due to frequent, hurtful criticism from the core trainers. She did not want identifying details revealed.

Like the second trainee, she alleged sexual harassment during a field trip. She was filming in the field when the other of two trainers accused of harassment, another married man, asked her for sex in a joking way, she alleged.

“He asked me, when do I want to give my body to him? I didn’t understand. Is this a joke or what?” she recalled. “My heart dropped after I heard that. I liked and respected him.”

“I was in shock. But I replied to him, ‘Please give me some respect.’”

“I don’t want to blame him alone,” the trainee continued. “The girl isn’t always right. I’m not sure if I did something wrong. But as I understand, he used these words on other students too.”

This trainer said he had gone into the field many times during the course and could not remember the incident, and denied he would joke in that way.

“Joking about nonsense like this wouldn’t happen. I am a teacher. Why would I talk to my student like this?” he said.

The trainer added that the program had a policy to work in groups and not allow one female and one male to be alone together.

Regarding physical contact while practicing sound and camera work, the center asks trainees three times before they start whether they don’t like to have physical contact, he said.

The three female trainees said that trainees had talked among one another about their experiences.

“I’ve talked to other trainees to be careful so the next trainees can be more protective,” the third trainee said, adding that she encouraged new trainees to report any problems.

Following earlier interviews, the three trainees on Thursday and Friday reiterated that they still wanted this article to come out as they didn’t want harassment to happen to others in the future.

But they all also expressed uncertainty at different points about calling it sexual harassment.

Feminist organization Klahaan’s director Bunn Rachana said it was easy to feel unclear about sexual harassment due to frequent jokes about it in entertainment; the lack of awareness-raising both inside the formal education system and outside, including in media; and the common idea that it is only serious if there is rape.

These problems lead young people to be “unsure whether this is about friendship or sexual harassment” when encountering uncomfortable situations, Rachana said.

“How did they feel after facing the actions?” Rachana said. “If the trainees feel the actions were unwelcome, it is harassment. The teacher has power over the students.”

A U.N. guide on dealing with harassment notes that “power relations are often at the core of such problems” and it is important to keep in mind that “such situations can be hard to define.” This makes it hard for complainants to approach the person or group involved in the harassment directly, it says.

“Complainants often do not feel comfortable with the personal approach, as they do not want to be seen as openly criticizing the alleged harasser,” it says, while noting that such an approach can nevertheless be effective.

Bophana Center director Chea Sopheap said he was first informed of the allegations by BBC Media Action in late October. He had set up a committee with himself and the heads of administration and finance — one of the three members is a woman — to investigate.

He said the two trainers would be moved to different roles while investigations continued into what happened during field trips. He could not fire staff members without evidence, he said.

“We know that this is something that’s unacceptable,” Sopheap said. “We are taking action.”

However, regarding touching around the office, Sopheap said staff members had only seen professional physical contact in order to guide trainees to move correctly while holding sound and camera equipment during training, as well as some pats on the head.

He showed reporters photos as examples of the kind of guidance used during training.

The center would take action — have female trainees work with female trainers or find new teaching methods — but the accusations were too imprecise, he said.

“For me, I feel it isn’t fair. It’s too generalized as sexual harassment,” he said. He had worked to make Bophana Center a home for everyone, he added, pointing out the work it had done to empower youth and local communities. “If you’re killing Bophana over this, maybe we need to find another way to keep the center alive.”

He said he wished the trainees had raised the issues directly and earlier. “My door is always open,” he said.

Sopheap acknowledged that trainees were verbally warned they would need to repay $3,000 if they quit their training. This was meant as an encouragement to keep trainees committed, especially because many applicants had not been able to secure a spot, so the selected trainees should make the most of their opportunity. But it was a verbal warning and the center would not actually take repayment, he said, adding that he would now reconsider the policy.

Sopheap said there had only been one instance in the past when he had heard people talking about a staff member using inappropriate — but not sexual —  words, and moved him to a different position. Sexual harassment allegations were new for the center, he said.

The four core trainers had been the same since the documentary filmmaking program became well-established a few years ago, and they were all men as it was difficult to find women in the sector, he said. One aim of the training program was to bring new women into the field, Sopheap said.

In an email sent later Wednesday, the center asked that the allegations be withheld from publication. It noted that an article could contain defamatory information.

“We will look into these allegations immediately and forcefully, and ask for your cooperation in helping us unearth what may have happened by not publishing a story that would only hurt both that effort and, gratuitously, the reputation of Bophana,” it said. “We commit to taking strong disciplinary actions if any misbehavior is uncovered.”

The entrance to the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh on November 2, 2022. (Michael Dickison/VOD)
The entrance to the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh on November 2, 2022. (Michael Dickison/VOD)

BBC Media Action country director Gemma Hayman said she had been made aware of reports of allegations of sexual harassment against employees of Bophana Center.

“We have the highest expectations for conduct and safeguarding from all our partners, which are clearly reflected in partnership contracts and in mandatory safeguarding training. We have zero tolerance for harassment. We are extremely alarmed by these reports and are in contact with the centre about them,” Hayman said.

“BBC Media Action provided Bophana Center with some funding and staff training for a specific project over a one-year period. Bophana Center’s project delivery for BBC Media Action ended in October 2022 and will not be renewed.”

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation said Bophana Center had been a subcontractor as part of its four-year project on strengthening civic engagement being implemented by BBC Media Action. SDC had been notified of the allegations by BBC Media Action and was monitoring investigations. The agency itself had never received reports or indications of sexual harassment at the Bophana Center, including when it previously worked with the center in 2014-2017, it said.

Bophana’s latest project ended in October, and “[n]o further collaboration will be considered, before the investigation is terminated and consequences taken,” the agency said. SDC added that it had a zero-tolerance policy for sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment and had a whistle-blower platform and other mechanisms in place.

The Swedish Embassy in Phnom Penh’s head of development cooperation Camilla Ottosson said the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency had also helped fund this year’s program, and it had been in touch with BBC Media Action since being contacted by VOD this week. Its investigation unit and other stakeholders had been notified.

“With the information we have at this point from BBCMA we are noticing that the abuse of power and harassment against the trainees is taken seriously and managed in accordance with the organizations procedures. We are very concerned but also appreciating that the trainee(s) have spoken out about the incidents so a proper investigation can be made.”

Additional reporting by Michael Dickison

VOD. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission. VOD is not responsible for any infringement in all forms. The perpetrator may be subject to legal action under Cambodian laws and related laws.