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Behind the scenes in Cambodia

Dubbing artists have the most iconic voices in the country, yet nobody knows their faces.

By 2012, Cambodia’s film industry will be all but extinct, predicted Sin Chan Saya, the director of the department. “We don’t produce movies well, so it’s difficult for them to succeed,” Sin said. “A film industry is important because we can disseminate our culture, but the quality, the talent isn’t good.”

Yet remarkably, demand for more Khmer television stations remains fierce. A decade ago, only four Khmer television stations existed; today, there are 10.

So we’re left with an interesting situation. Less native entertainment available plus additional air space and available foreign programs equals dubbing, dubbing and confused viewers.

“It’s difficult to explain my work,” Nong half-shouted. “So difficult! Because the people always think our work is easy. They think all we do is talk and talk and talk, and do nothing.”

Such, they say, is the life and times of a Cambodia dubber: life, misunderstood. And ignored. Like the hand model or ghost writer, their talent gets shunted. Famous ... kinda.

This can be a good thing. Or bad.

Nong, a tad vain, hates when people recognize her or her famous voice. “I’m too old!” Nong, 56, bellowed. “I’m almost 60. Yes, I want fame, but I don’t want them to know my face. I’m not like a singer or like other famous people and I’m happy for this.”

Even for this article, no pictures of them were allowed; no one, they say, can know their identity.

If not fame, what then, is the allure of dubbing? Money, and lots of it. Each of the five voice actors makes about $6,000 per year — more than three times the national average of $1,900 per year, according to CIA records — and are content with wealthy anonymity.

So maybe what happened next at Sunday’s studios, though strange and slightly embarrassing, makes sense. Short on staff, the production company looks for actors in every situation — like, say, the middle of newspaper interviews.

As this reporter was preparing to depart the studio, management ventured a tempting offer: “Would you be interested in starring in a Khmer karaoke music video? You could be the foreigner.”