Did you miss out on the Film Forum’s screening of Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, John Pirozzi’s heartfelt and toe-tapping documentary on the rise and resilience of Cambodian Rock and Roll music? Don’t despair! Through at least Saturday, May 2, you can catch the film
in the West Village at the IFC Center.
In news interviews and clips from the 1960s-70s and from today with Cambodian rockstars, fans, historians, and even political figures, Pirozzi’s film tells the story of how Cambodia’s music scene evolved in Phnom Penh and eventually swept the nation in the years leading up to the Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge regime.
Pirozzi examines the influence international musicians (such as France’s Johnny Hallyday and America’s Pat Boone) had on the Cambodian music scene, but he also makes sure to emphasize how traditional Cambodian musical styles, instruments, and even lyrical subjects informed the country’s most popular stars. The first half of the film is a joyous one, documenting the influence, performances, and national adoration of stars like the legendary crooners Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea and groups like Baksey Cham Krong. There are interviews with surviving family members and rock fans that possess a catalog of musical memories so perfectly intact they call to mind Legs McNeil’s enthusiasm when discussing the British and American punk scenes of the mid-70s.
American audiences, and even Cambodians who were born in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, might be surprised at how modern, fun, and even familiar the country looked in the 60s and early 70s. The film is full of bright colors, fabulous clothes, hair with a lot of height, and glimpses inside nightclubs where teens dance with a wonderful mix of Apsara-esque moves and then-contemporary twists and shakes. The interview subjects, too, are quick to remind foreign audiences that life in the late 1960s-early 1970s Cambodia was not only progressive and very much with the times, the country was also eager to remain peaceful in the midst of the Vietnamese War. Cambodia was (and is today) extremely focused on the cultivation and preservation of the arts, particularly dance and music. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who is featured heavily in the film, stresses the fact that music is the soul of the Cambodian people and the key to understanding their history.
The music changed, however, when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975. Songs that once covered personal and emotional themes like love, cheating, and motherhood now had lyrics extolling the benefits of supporting the Khmer Rouge and ones encouraging agrarian (forced) laborers to stay strong in the heat of the sun. Cambodians were rounded up and taken to prison camps, required to work under unbelievably abusive conditions in fields while the Khmer Rouge insisted they were helping their country’s economy so that it could have more global power and influence. Their fame did not exempt Cambodia’s famous singers from torture. Many rock stars were recognized by their fans and fellow singers — and were urged to keep the fact that they had been singers secret, as it could lead to accusations of supporting resistance or distracting the workers and cost them their lives. The film follows the stories, or at least the rumors, surrounding those stars who were murdered and those who survived the regime.
Though music was restricted during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign, many interviewed said that singing “the old songs” in secret — in the fields out of range of soldiers, for example — was what helped them to band together and to survive. The film ends with an emphasis on the importance of Cambodians acknowledging their history and committing themselves to preserving their own culture while also moving on and continuing to rebuild from the regime. The final scene takes place in a record store, as the surviving sister of Ros Sereyothea combs through old tapes and CDs, her eyes resting on one of her sister’s album covers. Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, the documentary is full of life and enthusiasm — oh, and some impossible-to-stop-singing music.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is currently playing at the IFC Center, located at 323 Sixth Avenue and West 3rd Street, off the 1 train at Christopher Street or the A/B/C/D/E/F/M at West 4th Street/Washington Square. The soundtrack is available on iTunes and other merchandise is listed on the film’s website here.