When we were young we loved being modern,” remembers one of the subjects of the documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll. Archival film clips from the 1960s show Phnom Penh, capital of the Southeast Asian kingdom of Cambodia, as a pretty nice place to live, with new public buildings and smiling students busily building a future in the wake of the former colony’s independence from France.
The most striking period footage from filmmaker John Pirozzi’s fascinating doc shows beautiful women singers in beehive hairdos and miniskirts performing with young musicians duded up in suits, while modern-looking couples do the twist on the dance floor. The supreme irony in these happy scenes — the idea we can never get out of our heads, even while the bouncy Khmer-language pop tunes continue on the soundtrack — is that in a few years most of these people will be dead, systematically murdered by Khmer Rouge communist revolutionaries, or else dying slowly of starvation on slave-labor farms.
The enigmatic Khmer Rouge domination of Cambodia (1975-1979) has been covered from a variety of angles since The Killing Fields (1984), but cameraman-turned-director Pirozzi — he made the 2007 doc Sleepwalking Through the Mekong with the band Dengue Fever — is hung up on the loss of an upbeat national mindset. From the late 1950s until the mid ’70s, Cambodian pop music was typified by such singers as Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea, Pen Ran, and Yol Aularong, and rock groups like Drakkar and Bayon Band. They forged a delicious hybrid of “foreign” (mostly French and American) rock ‘n’ roll with traditional Khmer vocal styles, until it all fell to earth. Luckily, a few of those doomed entertainers survive to tell the tale.
New pop records from places like Paris, Cuba, and Latin America flooded into Phnom Penh in the Sixties, along with hits by Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Guitar bands, à-go-go, and patriotic tunes shared radio time with crooner Sinn Sisamouth’s folkloric ballads and the plaintive love songs of “rice farm girl” Ros Serey Sothea and melancholy chanteuse Huoy Meas (“Cambodian songs are often sad,” notes a musician). When the first American troops arrived in neighboring Vietnam, Wilson Pickett, Santana, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell all made an impact. Unfortunately so did American bombs.
“We did get involved in bombing a neutral country,” talking head John Gunther Dean, former US ambassador to the Khmer Republic, acknowledges on camera. US aggression created adversaries. In the chaos caused by the “secret bombing of Cambodia” (it was no secret to the folks under the bombs) the KR insurgency gained power and eventually took over. No more rock ‘n’ roll, no more anything. By some estimates as many as three million Cambodians were killed by their own countrymen, a quarter of the country’s population.
Cities were emptied out, “bourgeois” citizens were eliminated (including teachers, writers, or anyone who so much as wore glasses), and the entire country was forced into farm labor in an effort to stamp out “corrupt” influences. Pop records were burned; the KR instead elevated rural folk songs. Former popsters who managed to live through the terror still have a shocked expression on their faces today. As they tell their stories, the film’s music and montage combine for a strong emotional effect, reflecting the guilty sadness of those who lived.
Amazingly, Pirozzi’s crew was able to unearth traces of the lost era of peace and prosperity, including rich color footage and a cavalcade of hits, from sources in four countries. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is a brilliant cultural excavation, connecting survivors’ memories to a generation’s worth of energetic music, with dreamlike editing and an indelible wistfulness. Most gratifying of all, a scene from contemporary Phnom Penh shows the vanished pop stars’ faces on the covers of CDs in a crowded music store, as if the Khmer Rouge had never existed.
Director Pirozzi appears in person at Berkeley’s Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Saturday, May 9, following the 7 p.m. screening.