Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is more than a music documentary. It preserves the memory of musicians who paid the ultimate price for making people dance.
Good music documentaries are plentiful in the 21st century. Whether entertaining profiles of unsung artists or reassessments of known quantities, these movies are likely to send you to the record store or at least to iTunes for the soundtrack. If the movie happens to show old record covers that are colorful artifacts of another era, you might even head to eBay to track down original pressings. But you can only get so far with Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, director John Pirozzi’s entertaining and sometimes harrowing documentary about Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll. You can buy the soundtrack on Dust-to-Digital and hear some of this music on compilations like Cambodian Rocks, but you’d be hard pressed to find original recordings from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. When the Khmer Rouge came to power, they ordered that these records be destroyed.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten interviews some of the surviving musicians of the era. In this film, being a survivor isn’t just a platitude about living through rock ‘n’ roll decadence. These men and women survived a more chilling reality: they’re the ones who weren’t killed.
This history of a music and a nation starts out benignly with the reign of Cambodia’s baby-faced leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The state promoted and encouraged culture, including pop culture, and this made it possible for stars like Pan Ren and Sinn Sisamouth to flourish. We see this through vintage photos and graphics that are bursting with color and inventive, kitschy design. Moviegoers are used to seeing variations on the Ken Burns school of panning across still images, but this film’s producers do this particularly well, editing together interviews, vintage footage and animated graphics to give a sense of the excitement of the era.
The music suits an orderly culture that would soon become too orderly. Though the inflections may sound unusual to Western ears, these singers had strong, versatile pipes that sent soulful, plangent vocals floating above carefully arranged blends of traditional Cambodian music and pop. Musical influences came from Frenchmen like Johnny Halliday and Brits like Cliff Richard and the Shadows, who leant their fashion sense as well. But the stream came from as far away as Cuba, which gives some Cambodian pop its rumba rhythm. Lyrics were romantic, talking of the moon and exotic landscapes, but also unusually bleak, perhaps foreshadowing the atrocities to come.
As the ’60s end, the film turns more and more to Cambodia’s precarious political situation. Prince Sihanouk is depicted as a well-meaning but ineffective leader, trying to stay neutral but ultimately siding with forces that would tear his country apart. One particularly bitter segment comes from John Gunther Dean, former U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia. Dean reads a scathing letter from Cambodian royal Sirik Matak written the night that American forces began to evacuate from Phnom Penh in 1974. “I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion… mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad, because we all are born and must die (one day). I have only committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans.” Matak was executed nine days later.
The Khmer Rouge outlawed any music that was not nationalistic. Sisamouth fled Phnom Penh but returned to perform for the new regime. His son, interviewed for the film, received at least thirty reports from people who saw or heard his father alive, and each of these witnesses had a different account of his death. Musicians like Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea and Yol Aularong were killed during this dark period. The film briefly shows the carnage left by Pol Pot, and if it only scratches the surface it doesn’t let you forget that this music meant more to its people than most popular music. That we have any record of this music at all is thanks to intrepid collectors and pop music fans who either hid their treasured records or took them out of the country. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is more than a music documentary. It preserves the memory of musicians who paid the ultimate price for making people dance.