“When we were young, we loved being modern,” an unseen female narrator says at the start of “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll,” the 2014 documentary film directed by John Pirozzi. The words are spoken in Khmer, Cambodia’s official language, and translated onscreen, accompanied by stark graphics and ominously rumbling music composed by Scot Stafford. “Then Pol Pot took over Phnom Penh in 1975,” the narrator continues. “I was a singer.” An old photograph of a lovely young woman, smiling and chic, materializes slowly, its sepia tone connoting faded memories.
There is a surprise waiting in “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten,” a labor of love that Pirozzi painstakingly assembled over a span of close to a decade, although the story it tells holds no mystery. Anyone who knows the history of modern Cambodia — its peaceful liberation from French occupation in 1953, its rush to modernization under the culturally enlightened monarch Norodom Sihanouk, the incursion of the Vietnam War, and the blood-soaked rise to power of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, which exacted a horrific toll on intellectuals and artists in particular — will understand that Pirozzi’s topic is not the stuff of happy endings.
The surprise, then, is how much tangible evidence of a thriving, joyous Cambodian musical scene the director was able to retrieve and bring to light. Pirozzi, who became aware of Cambodian pop while working on Matt Dillon’s feature film “City of Ghosts” in 2001, pursued his subject with a detective’s resourcefulness and a music nerd’s gusto. In a previous documentary, “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong” (2007), he took the members of Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles band inspired by vintage Khmer pop, to Cambodia, the native land of its lead singer, Chhom Nimol, and tracked down some of the surviving artists of that era.
Some of the biggest names in Cambodian pop, understandably, were no longer around to participate — in particular Sinn Sisamouth, a suave, prolific, and trend-setting singer who might be considered the Khmer Sinatra, and who is presumed to have died in the Killing Fields. But Pirozzi located and interviewed witnesses, scholars, and a key handful of musicians, such as Sieng Vanthy. Hers, it turns out, are the voice and the image that open the film. In a gripping interview, Vanthy, who died in 2009, reveals that she’d survived an encounter with the Khmer Rouge by claiming to be a banana merchant.
Through miraculously preserved film footage, as well as old photographs and album covers, we are introduced to a lively, swinging milieu that suits perfectly Cambodia’s embrace of all things modern in the ’50s. Its participants — artists and listeners alike — are young and happy, their adoption of French and English styles, Latin American influences, and American appropriations adept and joyous. Viewers will delight in discovering acts like the twangy Baksey Cham Krong, Cambodia’s eminent surf-guitar combo, and the heavier, funkier Drakkar — both of which have reunited to reap unexpected benefits provided by screenings of Pirozzi’s film.
The music, the stuff of cultish collectors for decades, is thrilling. And although there is genuine horror in the way that many of these luminaries were cast into shadow, prematurely and brutally, there remains a certain triumph to be had in Pirozzi’s film. It offers confirmation, if not exactly consolation, that brighter efforts of the human spirit can sometimes persevere.
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Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.