“If you want to eliminate values from past societies, you have to eliminate the artists.”
John Pirozzi’s Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten – Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll, presents the story of a cultural history cut short. This moving and enlightening documentary explores the vibrant and diverse modern music scene in post-colonial Cambodia, following the build-up to the Khmer Rouge’s brutal genocide that led to the deaths of an estimated 20% of the country’s population.
The music scene that developed in Cambodia following independence from Japan in 1953, up to the outset of the Khmer Republic in 1970, was heavily influenced by the available imports at the time. Initially French, Cuban and eventually American (corresponding with the influx of US troops into neighbouring Vietnam) rock’n’roll impacted on Cambodia’s Western-inspired pop music fusion, which always retained a local flavour. The music ranges from soft, lilting ballads to urgent go-go and ye-ye, snarling rock’n’roll. Despite the diverse range of genres, it somehow sounds unified, thanks, in part, to a number of vocals delivered in the traditional Khmer language, alongside uniquely Cambodian arrangements, with instruments often harmonising around electric guitars. It’s not Cambodians aping Western styles; it’s irrefutably Cambodian pop music.
The sweetness of these Cambodian sounds appended to the structures and melodies of occidental pop, particularly when set against the country’s unfolding tragedy, are at once both soothing and emotionally charged. The soundtrack is good enough to stand alone, although it adds much cultural context and resonance to the movie, using a blend of languages and musical genres to conjure a vivid picture, especially of the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, that somehow goes beyond any depiction in film or photography.
Cambodia’s role in Southeast Asia was one of turbulence and subjugation long before the Khmer Rouge’s rule. Situated between two strongmen of the region, Vietnam to the east and Thailand to the north, 20th century Cambodia moved from French rule to Japanese occupation, before finally gaining independence in 1953. By the late 1960s, following the massive instability created by the United States’ bombing campaign, the Khmer Rouge (Cambodia’s Communist Party) fought to take power. What followed was a brutal regime that sought to bring Cambodia back to a pre-industrial, agrarian-focused, classless society. Citizens were removed from the cities and sent to the countryside, and families were forcibly separated in order to create a society without multiple authorities. The enemies of the regime were many, including those with an education, who spoke multiple languages or held religious beliefs, indeed anyone who did not fit into the agrarian utopia that the Khmer Rouge planned to create. It is these circumstances that we see the modern, educated, urban youth of Phnom Penh subjected to. The regime, by its very nature, effectively targeted every single individual who was involved in the culture celebrated in Pirozzi’s film.
Focusing primarily on the creative outputs of a few noted individuals, Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea and Pou Vannary, within the context of the changing music scene, the film never lingers over the events of the genocide, allowing a celebration of the music to prevail outside of the tragic context. The range of musicians, relatives and witnesses that Pirozzi is able to summon is impressive, as is the quality of the original footage that survived the period. For all that, the spectre of the genocide looms around the edges of every interview and song. There is no getting away from the sense that every person who made up the community of musicians, songwriters, music importers and fans was inevitably to become the enemy of the regime.
When the Khmer Rouge fell, in 1979, and many simply failed to return home, having died in unknown circumstances, Cambodian society was denied closure. The fates of many of the artists portrayed in the film are simply unknown and unknowable. In the film, we see relatives rifle through record stores in modern Phnom Penh, looking and listening out for the memories of those they lost.
The booming modern Cambodian pop music scene of the 1960s could never be rebuilt, with too much and too many lost to the killing fields, the prisons and the death marches of the Khmer Rouge. Though the loss of lives was of course monumentally tragic, Don’t Think I Have Forgotten also manages to depict the loss of culture in society, carefully deploying dual lenses to commemorate both the individuals and the cultural that was destroyed. Although so much vanished, the creation and distribution of this documentary, and its soundtrack, offer a way to not only commemorate but also preserve the experience of Cambodia’s lost rock’n’roll.