The first two-thirds of John Pirozzi's documentary Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll are a delight. The last part is devastating, but no filmmaker can re-write the country's tragic history.
In the early 1960s, Cambodia was shaking off French colonialism and beginning to fashion itself into a new country. Part of its education was popular music, which streamed into Cambodia in various forms: French lounge music, Afro-Cuban rhythms, American surf instrumentals. And young Cambodian singers and musicians created kicky hybrid bands, incorporating regional instruments and the national penchant for weepie ballads. (Nobody recorded more haunting love songs than Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea.) Old films show a fantastic scene in the capital of Phnom Penh, of nattily dressed bands performing in lounges for dancing couples.
Pirozzi uses archival footage and interviews with former band members, influential Cambodians and assorted historians to tell both the story of the music and the increasingly tumultuous times, as the war in neighboring Vietnam begins to encroach. (One positive of the rising tensions: More sources of American popular music, leading to hits like the Khmer version of Santana's "Oye Como Va.")
Politically, there are twists and turns, and then horror, when in 1975, Phnom Penh falls to the Khmer Rouge. Artists, musicians and other free spirits are banished, Western music is branded counter-revolutionary, and Cambodia's quirky, lively popular-music scene vanishes overnight. The recounting of these dark years by survivors is heartbreaking.
But the two seemingly disparate parts of this film do form a cohesive whole — a tough but uplifting reminder that no matter what awful things humans do to each other, art survives. The singers can be killed, the records smashed, but always, the spirit remembers. And recordings that escape the wrecking ball live on, entertaining and inspiring anew. One elderly woman cries, recalling her sister, a popular balladeer who "disappeared forever." But as she thumbs re-issued CDs, she notes: "I am happy her voice is still here."
In English, and Khmer and French, with subtitles.