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Early on in John Pirozzi‘s documentary, a commentator observes, “There is a saying in Cambodia: Music is the soul of a nation.” And if Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll is any indication, this Southeast Asian country has a lot of soul.
As the subtitle indicates, the film, currently receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere at NYC’s Film Forum, chronicles the thriving era of Western-influenced pop music that swept the country, starting in the 1950s and ending with the rise to power of the brutally repressive and murderous Khmer Rouge.
The music scene flourished under the reign of the country’s ruler, Prince Sihanouk, a big supporter of the arts who was determined to further the country’s modernization after it gained independence from France in 1953. Inspired by such international pop stars as France’s Johnny Hallyday, England’s Cliff Richard and countless American performers, the country soon spawned its own luminaries, including Sinn Sisamouth, who had a hugely popular local hit with “Chama Battambang (Flower of Battambang)”; female singer Ros Serey Sothea, idolized by teenage girls; the rebellious rocker Yol Aularang; and Pou Vannary, with her bilingual cover version of Carole King‘s classic “You’ve Got a Friend.”
Featuring extensive archival footage of many of its profiled artists as well as interviews with the few survivors, the film also serves as a concise history of the country from its decade of peace and prosperity, from 1965-1975, to the tumultuous era that began 40 years ago when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. The Communist-led group immediately clamped down on freedom of artistic expression, with music becoming strictly relegated to the nationalistic, patriotic variety.
The ensuing genocide resulted in the deaths of many of the country’s top stars, here mourned onscreen by relatives, associates and fans.
Recounting the history of the country’s turmoil during the Vietnam War, the film includes many bracing moments, such as an interview with the former U.S. ambassador in which he declares that we bombed an essentially neutral country.
Recounting an era that began so joyously and ended so tragically, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten well achieves its goal of once again shining a spotlight on these artists whose music, despite the strenuous efforts of those wishing to destroy it, fortunately still lives on. Adventurous music fans would be well advised to pick up the accompanying soundtrack album.
Production: Primitive Nerd, Harmony Productions, Pearl City
Director/director of photography: John Pirozzi
Producers: John Pirozzi, Andrew Pope
Executive producers: Bradley Bessire, Youk Chhang, Jonathan Del Gatto
Editors: Daniel Littlewood, Matt Prinzing, Greg White
Composer: Scot Stafford
Not rated, 105 min.
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