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New Film Explores Cambodia's Forgotten 1960s Rock Scene

Musicians who survived Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge regime reunited over the weekend, playing onstage again for fans old and new. The open-air concert at Phnom Penh's Chaktomuk Theater followed a private screening of Don't Think I've Forgotten, a documentary about Cambodia's rock 'n' roll scene from the 1960s.

Reunion concerts often evoke thoughts of once-famous bands picking up their instruments after a long hiatus. Here, musicians came out of not only retirement, but often obscurity, said Touch Seang Tana.

"Maybe the audience doesn't know me well, but rather as a scientist. I was an artist and musician back in the day. Younger generations don't know me as an artist because history has lost the songwriters' names from the songs, so we don't know who wrote them anymore," he said.

Touch Seang Tana is better known as a prominent conservationist working with Mekong River dolphins. He recently joined several others as living testimonies to Cambodia's 'golden age' of rock. Many other musicians from that time are long gone, killed by the murderous Khmer Rouge, which tried to wipe out the music from Cambodia's history.

The sister of one of the era's most well-known singers, Ros Serey Sothea, was on hand to remind the audience. "The art from this era, we can consider it a very important heritage; please do not forget it and change that distinction," said Ros Saboeun.

Ten years in the making, the documentary Don't Think I've Forgotten shares the stories of the musicians who made this scene. The private screening in Phnom Penh more than filled the theater, an indication that many share the same fascination for the music and the war that originally hooked director John Pirozzi.

"As an American, I was feeling kind of shocked that I hadn't been taught that. So that was the first thing," he said. "And then when I heard the music, I'm a big music lover. It really just grabbed me. I was like, 'Wow, this is some amazing music,' and I was curious. Where did it come from? Who were these people?"

The documentary traces the history of Cambodia's 1960s and '70s rock music through interviews with survivors and fans. It also covers its traumatic end at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, with memories recounted by musicians, as well as by John Dean, former counselor to President Richard Nixon.

The film has its official premiere later this year.