When we think about music and Vietnam, the first thing that comes to mind usually are images of Hueys blaring Wagner as they bombard a village, or US soldiers trudging off into the distance clouded in smoke, Canned Heat or Jimmy Hendrix, or even, if war isn’t really your thing, Country Joe and The Fish simmering on the soundtrack. Vietnam and American music have become so entwined in popular culture that its effects and its influences are largely lost in a [purple] haze of nostalgia and wildly misplaced patriotism, or (depending on who you think won) a glowering sorrow or opprobrium. What most people have forgotten, however, in the waves of cultural appropriation that took place throughout the late 60s and early 70s, is that there was already in place in Cambodia at the time a thriving youth culture based in much the same love of music and performance as there was in America.
Situated mostly in the South East Asian cultural hub that was Phnom Penh, an entire music scene, organically grown from influences as disparate as 50s US crooners, Afro-Cuban rhythms, South Sea exotica and Indian traditional dance, the Cambodia rock and roll story is one that mirrors the history of the region and tells as many heart-breaking stories as the war itself.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock And Roll, the new documentary from the director of Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, tells us this history through the close examination of the lives and careers of a handful of the most famous Cambodian performers – their styles, their influences, their reactions to the war and its concomitant oppressions and their final, tragic swansongs. Whereas Sleepwalking… examined the past through the lens of a current band, Dengue Fever, whose Cambodian singer provides the impetus for the journey on a tour of the country, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten uses the present only as a platform from which the stars of the past are able to speak.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is constructed mostly from fantastic archive footage of the singers in question, intercut with (as would be impossible to do without) many great clips showing us the political turmoil in which the singers tried to create their music, and interviews today with some of the survivors, both singers and the families of those who weren’t so fortunate. The film tends to shy away from the usual Vietnam era footage, grainy film of soldiers and helicopters and burning palm trees and instead focuses on the political side of the conflict, giving us interviews with all of the main characters, good and bad. And though this film is ostensibly about the music, this footage is used also as a fantastic tool to dissect the horror of a happy neutral nation being plunged into civil war by the unthinking actions of greater world powers.
This story takes the form of an abrupt history lesson told by those that survived it. From French occupation to Nixon’s indiscriminate bombing of Vietnamese seeking refuge in Cambodia, to the rise of the Khmer Rouge killing machine that set about eradicating American influence by killing millions who were taken in by its music. Lest it be thought that this film is all death and genocide, soundtracked by those killed, there are lighter moments here where Pirozzi concentrates the story on the most famous singers of the time. Sinn Sisamouth, for instance, considered the King of Khmer music, introduced many to the joys of music with his soulful traditional voice and covers of American standards such as “House of the Rising Sun”. He too was taken in by the politics of the time, eventually singing propaganda songs for the fledging Khmer Rouge before eventually dying in unknown circumstances in The Killing Fields. Inevitably, the light tone cannot last, however, as the stories of many others are just as tragic, as Pol Pot sought to return Cambodia to a sort of Dark Ages through his nearly successful complete removal of foreign culture.
The real emotional thrust of this film lies in the tales of those that survived, first-person accounts of those now aged who they left the country for French or American exile carrying little pieces of their country’s short musical heyday with them: records, printed music and fantastically garishly coloured posters. Most importantly, however, they kept alive the tragically short careers of the Cambodian musicians and singers murdered by Pol Pot. Even considering the West’s role in the breakdown of the neutrality that led to the rise of the horrific despotism, it is amazing how readily the citizens and musicians of Phnom Penh were able to separate those despicable policies from the culture of the state that implemented them. An abiding reverence for Cambodian music, inextricably entwined as it is with foreign influences, kept many of the victims comfortable in times of war, and this is shown even now by the fondness with which all music is remembered and cherished.
This is a wonderful film then, filled with terrific music and colourful characters, all tied together by an astute journalistic heart that never forgets the importance of all elements of a country’s history to all parts of its peoples’ lives. It shows us unfamiliar aspects of a familiar conflict, and in so doing increases our understanding of its causes and its effects. This is a film that shows the viewer things that haven’t been immediately apparent in the past, an honest look a those left behind when the wheels of international politics run over culture unthinkingly.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll screens at the 59th BFI London Film Festival on the 14th and 17th October as part of the Sonic strand.
Director: John Pirozzi
Stars: Prince Sihanouk, Sinn Sisamouth