The year is 1945 and Cambodian men are packed into traditional longboats, ready to race each other in an event that “has been going on for more than 1,000 years” at the annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh.
It was a time when Phnom Penh was known as “the pearl of Southeast Asia.” Norodom Sihanouk, an accomplished musician himself, had made the arts a top priority, and music from as far afield as the U.S., France and even Cuba made its mark on Cambodia.
At the world premiere of American filmmaker John Pirozzi’s documentary “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll” on Saturday evening, scores of people crowded into Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk Theater to watch the long-anticipated film about this “golden age” of Cambodian pop culture.
“Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” follows the evolution of Cambodian music as young Khmers embraced rock ’n’ roll in the 1960s and early ’70s, growing their hair long, wearing flares and dancing late into the night at venues like the Mekong River Club.
But this liberating period of musical innovation was shortlived. Despite continuing to perform under a curfew imposed during the civil war, when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, and the city emptied, the musicians were scattered to the countryside. Many would never return.
Mr. Pirozzi said there “[wasn’t] a better place on the planet” for the film’s premiere to be held than in the Cambodian capital, the cultural heart of the country.
“The film is an ode to Phnom
Penh, in a way, because the city is such a spiritual center of the country for so many people and so many people have written songs about it that you hear in the film,” Mr. Pirozzi said.
The premiere, which was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and the Documentation Center of Cambodia, played host to Cambodian rock royalty, including Ouk Sam Art, Touch Seang Tana and Touch Chhattha of Drakkar Band, as well as Hong Samley, a former member of Baksei Cham Krong and a founder of Bayon Band.
The feature-length documentary includes interviews with musicians
who survived the Khmer Rouge and relatives of those who did not. It unearths archival footage of contemporary performances, interspersed with stunning imagery of pre-revolutionary Cambodia and illustrative animations.
The enduring influence of musicians on Cambodian society up until the Khmer Rouge takeover, when many of them were targeted and killed, while others were forced to hide their identity, is brought to life through in-depth interviews and often-amusing anecdotes.
David Chandler, a prominent historian of Cambodia, who features in the film and attended
Saturday’s screening, said the documentary is particularly important because “Cambodians are a nation of musicians.”
Having finished the film just two weeks ago in New York after working on it for nearly a decade, Mr. Pirozzi said he is now deciding where to take it next, but plans to screen it at many of this year’s film festivals.
“I also really hope it opens up more discussion, that more people make films about it [Cambodia’s musical history], that more information comes out about it, that it gets archived properly and there’s a place for people who want to find out more about it to go to,” Mr. Pirozzi said.
“I wanted to get a definitive answer for what happened to these artists, but when I was making the film and interviewing their family and friends I realized that no one knows, so that had to become part of it. It’s part of the tragedy that the sense of closure doesn’t exist,” he added.
Sin Chhan Chhaya, a singer and the son of iconic singer-songwriter Sin Sisamouth, said that at least 30 people had told him that they had traveled with his father and seen him die.
“You can’t die in 30 places all at once,” he said.
One of the last things he remembers Sin Sisamouth telling him before they were separated, Mr. Chhan Chhaya said after the screening, has stayed with him through the years: “Even if I never come back, my voice still remains.”
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