I wrote a brief capsule review for Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll when it played CAAMFest earlier this year. Generously received at the festival, the film now gets a general release, opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, May 8.
Understandably, a mournful air hangs over filmmaker John Pirozzi’s nine-year labor of love. Cambodia suffered two doses of massive slaughter in the late 20th century: first courtesy the United States Air Force, which dropped almost 3 million tons of bombs on the tiny Southeast Asian nation, displacing 30% of the population and killing around half a million Cambodians; secondly, in the period following the 1975 ascension to power of the Khmer Rouge.
At first, many Cambodians considered the Khmer Rouge an improvement on the corrupt Lon Nol government that had preceded it. Things changed quickly, however, when Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and company implemented a massive program of social leveling designed to teach the educated classes the value (if not the dignity) of labor.
The program revolved around the evacuation of the country’s major cities, and was intended as a ‘Year Zero’ societal re-set for the newly renamed Democratic Kampuchea. Success also required that all vestiges of pre-revolutionary art – including, of course, popular music, especially the kinds influenced by western pop or rock – be buried and forgotten.
Cambodia’s entertainers joined the nation’s educated classes as farmers or manual laborers in the infamous ‘killing fields’. Approximately two million Khmer citizens died or disappeared during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign, which ended when the Vietnamese Army invaded the republic in 1979.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten introduces viewers to some of the musicians who died or disappeared during those horrific years, with particular attention paid to Sinn Sisamouth, the King of Khmer Music. Born in 1932 and revered by Cambodians of all classes, Sissamouth was the country’s biggest star, performing regularly at royal and state occasions for decades.
Because there’s so little surviving footage of Sissamouth (and other important Cambodian musicians such as Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea), Pirozzi relies on interviews with survivors and still photographs to tell his story. That makes for a somewhat static film, but the music is what makes the documentary worthwhile.
The rediscovery of Cambodia’s ‘lost rock and roll’ began with the rescue of scores of deteriorating cassette compilations of Khmer pop music from the Oakland Public Library. These tapes provided the basis for a four CD series entitled ‘Khmer Rocks’ and encouraged Parallel World’s 2000 compilation ‘Cambodian Rocks’, as well as others such as ‘Cambodia Rock Spectacular’ and ‘Cambodian Psychout’. Coupled with the contemporary recordings of Los Angeles’ excellent Dengue Fever, Khmer music has never had greater exposure.
But is it rock? Though your average Led Zep or Beatles fan would probably find it completely alien and hard listening to boot, it’s undeniable that Sissamouth and his fellow Khmer musicians were heavily influenced by western music. Adventurous listeners will find it refreshingly different, while the personal stories of tragedy will touch anyone who sees Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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