With all of the apocalyptic rhetoric spewing from the right these days — about how our country is going to hell at the hands of our evil dictatorial president, an activist Supreme Court and the gay-rights cabal — it might behoove all of us to watch the new documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll. This slow-burn doc captures two decades of Cambodian cultural and political history using archival footage and modern-day interviews, interlacing the arc of the Phnom Penh pop music scene with the escalation of the Vietnam War and the short but devastating presence of the Khmer Rouge.
The film opens in the ’50s, as Cambodia was slipping into independence, now free from French colonization. With its new-found independence came a thriving arts and cultural scene, encouraged by the government, namely Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk demanded orchestras be formed to accompany him across Cambodia promoting film, agriculture, architecture, music, and art.
The film’s trajectory moves methodically through the ’60s, interweaving music and political history. Discotheques popped up during the Cold War, during which Cambodia insisted on neutrality. Afro-Cuban music and French crooning flooded the musical landscape, along with a surfy, twang precursor to what would become Cambodian rock.
Notable as the first real Cambodian rock group was Baksei Cham Krong, started by musician Mol Cagnol in 1959 (he was 14). They called him Uncle Solo. Influenced by The Shadows in the 1961 movie The Young Ones, Baksei Cham Krong created a tsunami of guitar bands that played everything from hot-rod rock to go-go. Everyone felt safe in this growing community of musicians and music lovers, despite brewing hostilities at the country’s borders.
As the Vietnam War ramped up, Cambodia again tried to maintain neutrality while protecting its own. This became increasingly more difficult, as threats encroached from without and within. And still grew the scene. The country’s first studio, Radio National, with one mic in the center of an empty room, provided a primitive but powerful outlet for the artists of the time. Female singers Chhuon Malay, Mao Sareth and the “Voice of National Radio” host and singer Huoy Meas became cherished icons.
By the late ’60s, as American fleets moved into the region, American rock was making it onto the airwaves. Liv Tek was the Cambodian Wilson Pickett, screams and shouts galore. Beneath it all, the Khmer Rouge, which was backed by communist China, was making inroads. Cambodian neutrality was eroding, and in March 1970, Norodom Sihanouk was deposed. Despite the grim outlook, the trappings of flower power and sexual liberation were gaining a foothold in Cambodia. Hippie band Drakkar provided fuzzed-out Beatles- and Rolling Stones-influenced rock. Yol Aularong created Cambodian soul and funk with lyrics that criticized conservative values and conformity.
Again, the back-and-forth between politics and music continues, as director John Pirozzi strikes a weird balance of joy and terror. We see Sihanouk vowing to fight back, encouraging an uprising and forming an alliance with Khmer Rouge, which allowed Pol Pot to secretly unleash his own plans. A bloody civil war ensued, and Cambodian music reflected this shift. No more fun, no more love songs. The “government” demanded patriotic songs. One pro-war song went: “My friends/don’t be afraid to kill/chase and slaughter/pick up a weapon now.”
Then, in 1973, 200 days of bombing began, the countryside was decimated, and farming families were destroyed. The Khmer Rouge incited the poor to take up arms and fight. The genocide had begun in earnest. People responded with more music. In bombed-out cities, where curfews were imposed, dayclubs opened. Musicians played in fear, but they played. In 1975, Khmer Rouge took Radio National and shut it down. No more freedom, no more Western ideas ... no music.
If all of this sounds a bit expositional, it doesn’t play that way. Pirozzi, though sticking to conventional doc style, employs clever animation and colorful sequences to capture the energy of the rock scene. Archival war footage and shots of Phnom Penh nightlife, along with interviews with aging relatives of popular musicians, ground the film in wondrous and painful reality. And therein lies the crux of the film.
About halfway through, I realized there were few first-person musician interviews. The chilling fact is that they all disappeared during the Khmer Rouge reign. Presumed dead by family members, those musicians never returned home. And their legacy becomes the bittersweet core of Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten.
We can easily take for granted how inseparable arts and politics are. Even if not explicitly connected, music, visual art, theater, literature, and dance crystalize a society’s viewpoint in the shifting currents of geo-political conflict. Rock-and-roll has always been the mouthpiece of the most vocal social commentators, and the Cambodians who lived and died for their art should not, as the title commands, be forgotten.