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Documentary Looks at Cambodia’s Heyday of Rock-and-Roll

  • Ly Moryvan

An American documentary on Cambodia’s rock-and-roll scene from the 1950s and 1960s screened this week in the suburbs of Washington.

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” is a slice of Cambodian life, showing how its pop culture was growing after the country’s independence from France, only to be destroyed by the rise of the Khmer Rouge. But it also has helped viewers and the people involved remember the past in a better light.

Musicians and singers of the era found themselves at a unique time in Cambodian history—newly independent, culturally influenced by the French, and listening to American rock that drifted over the airways from armed forces radio and the conflict in Vietnam. All of that combined to create a rare form of music.

The documentary captures this period, helping the audience better understand the time, as well as the meanings of many of the most popular Cambodian rock songs at the time.

At the American Film Institute screening, in Silver Spring, Maryland, Sin Sethakol, the grandson of famed singer Sin Sisamuth, attended on behalf of his family.

Sin Sethakol told VOA Khmer he had learned new things about his grandfather, whom had passed away before he was born. “I’d seen his face on CD covers and heard his voice,” he said. “After I watched the movie, I became very emotional. All Cambodian families were broken apart because of Pol Pot’s regime.”

Watch trailer here:

John Pirozzi, the director and producer of the film, told VOA Khmer he’d first gone to Cambodia to help the filming of “City of Ghost’s,” produced by Matt Dillon. After that, he wanted to produce a documentary of Cambodia’s political history—but that changed when he heard the music, which piqued his curiosity. He decided to put the two ideas together.

“I think the film is about Cambodia’s history and also about the music at the same time,” he said. He was drawn to the voices of singers like Ruos Sereisothea and Sin Sisamuth.

Like many other artists and intellectuals, Ruos Sereisothea died under the regime, along with more than 1.7 million people, a quarter of the population. As the movie was produced, survivors were found, and they found each other.

Mol Kanhol, a former guitarist, said he had wanted to forget the past, but the filming changed his attitude. “In my mind, I regarded the period from when I was born to when I was 30 as a previous life,” he said in an interview. “I wanted to bury it, so that it wouldn’t hurt me too much.”

Pirozzi helped him see things differently, he said.

“When he came to interview me about the past, I had forgotten a lot,” he said. “I had tried to erase it. I couldn’t recall the faces of some of my friends. But after I watched the movie three or four times, and met them in person, and recounted the stories, then the memories came back.”

He became convinced that Cambodian rock, as part of its past, should be remembered. “The suffering is long past, over 30 years ago,” he said. “Now I can talk about the past, and I can laugh.”

Audience members said the film had given them a new understanding of Cambodian music and history.

“Growing up in this country, I didn’t realize how much I was missing from being a whole person,” Duong Ti, a viewer from Virginia, said after the screening. “Seeing the performers live not only made me very proud, but also like a whole person. I am proud of them, proud of my heritage, proud to be part of the community.”

“Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” has screened in New York, Minneapolis and Lowell, Massachusetts. Ten more screenings are planned around the US, Canada and France.

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