Imagine the U.S. government rounding up Madonna, Kanye West, Billy Joel and Prince and murdering them based on their occupation. In Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll, John Pirozzi's captivating new documentary on the life of Cambodian musicians before and during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the hypothetical became real in the Southeast Asian country 40 years ago.
Drawing on archival footage and interviews with fans, musicologists and surviving musicians, the film exemplifies two extremes: Cambodia's rich, varied musical heritage that drew from Southeast Asian melodies, Afro-Cuban influence and U.S. and British rock & roll; and the extermination of nearly all popular musicians and other artists once the Khmer Rouge assumed power in 1975. (The movie is currently playing at New York's Film Forum and is set to expand nationwide later this year.)
"If you want to eliminate values from past societies, you have to eliminate the artists," Prince Norodom Sirivudh, the half-brother of King Norodom Sihanouk who ruled the country from 1941 to 1955 and 1993 to 2005, says in the film. "Artists are close to the people."
As the documentary shows, Cambodia in the 1950s and early Sixties was a time of peaceful prosperity despite the ongoing war in neighboring Vietnam. With many records coming in from Cuba, France and South America, the country saw an explosion of musical groups and modernization after gaining independence from the French in 1953.
"Before the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was just like any other country," Mol Kagnol, guitarist for Cambodia's first rock & roll band Baksey Cham Krong, says. "We had rock and roll, electric guitars and miniskirts."
As the country entered a civil war in 1970 pitting the Khmer Rouge against the U.S.- and Republic of Vietnam-backed Khmer Republic, the country's songs — usually filled, as Prince Norodom says in the film, with "breakups, deception and despair" — became nationalistic, with virtually all popular music from the previous decade banned from national radio. ("My friends/Don't be afraid to kill/Chase and slaughter/Pick up a weapon now," commands one singer.)
Pirozzi's film deftly encapsulates this 1960s history and the importance and popularity of music to the country. But his examination into the Khmer Rouge era, in which 1.7 million people were murdered between 1975 and 1979, sheds new light on how artists who "threatened the regime," including some of the country's most well-known singers, vanished and were never heard from again. "It's literally like taking everyone who was a popular music artist and finding them disappearing into the vapors," Pirozzi says.
That the documentary exists at all is a triumph, given that officials destroyed many of the era's recordings. "So much of the history has been wiped out," the filmmaker says. "They didn't even teach the Khmer Rouge history in schools until very recently. There's a double fog of war and genocide that has settled over Cambodia. We're not talking about that long ago and it seemed that everything had disappeared."
The film's roots date back to 2001, when Pirozzi went to Cambodia as a camera operator for the Matt Dillon crime drama City of Ghosts. "As soon as I got to [Cambodia's capital] Phnom Penh, it really struck me that you could see that this place had been this modern city with a very distinct character. But the area was still somewhat of a ghost town and it was intriguing to see, 'Well, what was here? What happened?'"
After returning to New York, Pirozzi's friend sent him the compilation Cambodia Rocks, featuring artists like crooner Sinn Sisamouth, iconoclastic rocker Yol Aularong and Ros Serey Sothea, the "golden voice of Cambodia."
"There was something very foreign, yet familiar, about the music and it made me wonder, 'Who were all these people?'," Pirozzi says. "It was obvious that it wasn't just a few artists. There was a whole, big scene. I thought this would be a great window into the film and the history of the country."
After moving to Los Angeles, Pirozzi began speaking to Cambodian musicians in Long Beach, home of the largest Cambodian population outside of the country. On his first of eight trips to the country, he linked up with organizers of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an NGO founded in 1995 to, as their website notes, "[document] the myriad crimes and atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era." As part of their mission to preserve the country's culture, the center dispatched volunteers to the countryside with tape recorders to interview former musicians and singers and piece together the country's musical history.
For most of these surviving musicians, many of whom interviewed are the last living members of their family, the film brought back deeply traumatic memories. "I tried to forget about the other part of my life and just move on," Kagnol says. "It was a survival strategy that came automatically." The guitarist lost more than 20 family members at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, including his parents, five brothers and numerous nieces and nephews.
As a toddler, Kagnol would pluck a rubber band off his earlobe with his finger before learning the xylophone, piano and accordion. After learning guitar, he joined Baksey Cham Krong in 1959 at the age of 14. "We heard Pat Boone and Paul Anka. We liked those songs, but their music was too complicated for us with their big orchestras," the musician says. "Later on, we heard the Ventures and the Shadows on short-wave radio that was just three guitars and a drum and said, 'That's small enough for us to get started.'"
Kagnol moved to the United States after the band broke up in 1966, but recalls the indiscriminate nature of the killings. "They murdered everyone who did not get along with their system or rules," he says. "Who are the 1.7 million? It's every class. The rich, the poor, the peasants, the elite. They spread it all evenly."
Many of the original master tapes have disappeared, though an accompanying soundtrack to the film, taken from select reel to reels of the era and augmented with added instrumentation, showcases the country's diversity and talent.
With so few recordings and musicians left, preservation is paramount. A recent concert tour featuring surviving musicians performing alongside current Cambodian singers and relatives of the deceased sold out two shows at New York's City Winery, while Los Angeles psych-rock sextet Dengue Fever, featuring Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol, weaves in traditional Cambodian pop melodies into their sound.
"I hope that people take away [from the film] a deep appreciation for the music and for how talented the people who made it were," Pirozzi says. "For Americans, Cambodia seems so exotic and far away. There's a certain distance [to the Khmer Rouge] because it seems so foreign. But the music has a universal element that helps people understand that this could've been you. This could've been anybody."