John Pirozzi’s documentary titled, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll” is on one level about pop music evolution of Cambodia in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It is about the way in which musicians found a style a music the brought together traditional conventions with conventions of the West. It is about the men and women who pioneered this style in a land searching for its own identity. That’s what it is about on one level. On an entirely different level it is about human history, a tale of which depicts an attempt to rid a country of its past, but an attempt that ultimately fails. It is about the persistence of memory to reconstruct history. Remembrance of things past.
Indeed, the presentation of the film’s story is indicative of the fragility of history. Because the communists in the mid-70s sought to eliminate all traces of Western influences, records and footage of the Cambodian rock and rollers was scarce, close to extinction. Pirozzi’s dedication to research and unwavering spirit (the film took ten years to create) culminates into a ethereal collection of images and archival footage that embodies the characteristics of a patchwork quilt. The stiches for these quilts are the survivors of the genocidal period of the Khmer Rouge who reveal a plethora of information about their music and their lives. Essentially, this film is a reconstruction of a devastated history, marred by a destructive fandango between numerous political ideologies looking to suffocate the individuality of a nation.
We are drenched in a colorful stream of Cambodian music, and though at times it will be hard to remember all the musicians and songs that are thrown at you, the editing echoes certain musicians and themes from time to time, repeating images that recall thins previously learned. In addition, the film does highlight some musicians. Individuals like Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea, Pen Ran, and Yol Aulorong are major players that defined the pop music movement in Cambodia providing an eclectic spectrum of musical styles akin to the popular music movement in America.
Pirozzi brings us a story of the flourishing, demise, and revival of these musicians. He also constructs the framework that this music existed in, a panorama of Cambodia’s sociopolitical climate in three decade. Such emphasis is important because this framework determines the way in which pop music functions within the country. Tragedy ensues when even this sort of artistic movement could not stand against the turmoil that engulfed the nation. Frighteningly enough, turmoil that may have been orchestrated by the superpowers of the Cold War. the invisible players like the US and China played a big role in the destiny of Cambodia and, thus, their pop music. It is akin to the way in which the story of the Malaysian killing squads were influenced by the US and UK in the seminal film, “The Act of Killing.”
What a bold feat of a film this is! A celebration of transcending music as well as an exploration into a country’s past that is little-known throughout the world. Again, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” is just as much about history as it is about the music. It is about how we can piece back together a shattered past and identity, to rethread the chronology of a nation. A certain history of Cambodia was once thought to be taken away but the persistence to bring this film to life and the persistence to retain the memories of the rock and roll music is the weapon for obscurity. If you love music and you love to explore music of the world, then you need to see this film. You will learn a whole lot.