‘When we were young, we loved to be modern.”
That line, from Cambodian singer Sieng Vanthy, begins the revealing documentary
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll. Chronicling an era of music, art and prosperity that was nearly wiped from memory, the film offers a fascinating look at a nation largely known for military coups, civil wars and the horrific Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.
Director Jon Pirozzi, who last helmed a documentary that followed world dance band Dengue Fever as they traveled to Cambodia, returns to the culturally rich country again to pay tribute to the musicians who, in the 1960s and ’70s, soaked up music from Europe, America and South America and turned it into their own style, combining traditional Cambodian rhythms with electric guitars.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten starts by telling the stories of iconic pop stars like Sinn Sisamouth, who in Cambodia was basically the entire Rat Pack rolled into one. Beginning in the late 1950s, Sisamouth and others were opening the country’s ears to a new and largely Westernized sound. The film follows the progression of pop in Cambodia, as performers delved into everything from hard rock to a-go go music. It was not to last.
If you know anything of Cambodia’s history, it’s probably the name of Pol Pot. The revolutionary-turned–totalitarian-dictator led the Khmer Rouge and took over the country in 1975. Under Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities, attempted to erase all Western ideas and influence in the country and essentially turned the entire population into a slave state. An estimated 2 million Cambodians were killed between 1975 and 1979. The Khmer Rouge targeted artists, musicians, business owners and intellectuals as enemies of the state.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten does not shy from this fact, and the second half of the film—where the strength of the survivors and the memories of the lost are celebrated—is as unsettling and somber as the first half is vibrant and alive.
‘Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll’ opens Friday, May 8, at Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley St., Sebastopol. 707.525.4840.