Recovering the history of Cambodia’s sound.
“We were like a blank piece of paper. When they tell you to sing, you just sing.” So says chanteuse/genocide survivor Chhom Charvin of life under the Khmer Rouge in John Pirozzi's Don't Think I've Forgotten, a spellbinding survey of Cambodia’s lost era of psychedelia-infused lounge rock and roll. Pirozzi’s film is enamored of a music that never got a chance to take off internationally, but it’s also sober and methodical in its analysis of the circumstances that led to its demise—collecting firsthand accounts from dozens of survivors and artists with dashes of colorful concert footage, album covers, and Technicolor studio performances.
What initially seems standard-issue about the film soon betrays a high watermark of investigative journalism, with individual relationships between artists mapped across a sequence of agonizingly tense years as a Nixon Administration-backed coup (led by prime minister Lon Nol) deposes Cambodia’s heretofore god-king Sihanouk. A former French colony still young in its era of independence, the staunchly neutral Cambodia would soon open itself up for American intervention, and it's here—following the coup, and Nixon's illegal bombings just over the Vietnamese-Cambodian border—that the Khmer Rouge found an opportunity to topple Lon Nol’s government.
Among the 1.7 million people killed by the regime, iconic musicians like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea didn’t merely vanish into the death camps; their albums, films, and personal effects were destroyed in an attempt to rub out the country’s postcolonial heritage. The scene was crushed, their friends and colleagues sentenced to labor in agrarian camps, disguising themselves as farmers and laborers. More than a few of those veterans live to tell the tale in this film, while the music—already plenty ethereal in its own right—takes on a tragic, retroactive poetry. These are the songs of a generation allocated exactly one brief moment on the world stage, rendered both haunting and quotidian in Pirozzi's film—which is equal parts heartbreaking elegy and long-overdue restoration. Plus, the tunes are catchy as hell.
Steve Macfarlane Can you talk a little bit about the legwork? I assume a lot of time was spent securing interviews, but there's also a wealth of archival footage. Was there one long trip? Were there many small ones?
John Pirozzi I had to go back and forth many times because there was no primary research that existed anywhere. I really had to piece together the history of the music scene from having virtually no information. I had two singers’ names and that was it. So, we ended up shooting close to eighty interviews in four countries. One thing about this music is, when hearing it, you can really tell that there's a lot going on. There are a lot of different styles. It must have been a pretty comprehensive scene, and it was important to me that the film represented that idea.
It took a long time because there were a lot of people—and also, their memories. You have to remember these are people who have been through a lot. They’ve actually had to change their identities more than once because, under the Khmer Rouge, they were forced to hide and be something else. Then when they came back to Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge were kicked out, they started their lives all over again. The whole country was essentially destroyed, so they had to begin a whole new life. We were trying to dig up information about what happened in their lives before the war. There were a lot of layers to penetrate.
SM When you’ve got somebody on camera, when you’re trying to talk to them about either a series of traumatic events, or what life was like beforehand—is it easy? Does it come naturally? Does it take hours of conversation, finagling?
JP Well, I think it’s a happy time for them. Not wanting to talk about it, that wasn’t so much an issue. But in terms of having the memories, it took a little bit of prompting to get them. I didn’t have a lot of information, so it was hard for me to direct them where they needed to go. The more information I gathered, and the more they realized I had some sense of what the music scene was and who the people were that were important in it, the more willing they were to cooperate. If you’re being interviewed by someone, and they don’t know anything about the topic they’re talking to you about, I think it’s harder for you to get engaged with them. So, basically, the interviews just got better and better with each one we did, because we started to piece together names, bands, and who these people were.
For me, there was no other research. No one had written about this at this point. There were no books or films, or even magazine articles. There was zero research to go on. I had to build this from the ground up. I think a lot of the initial interviews—most of them aren’t in the film. I’d say the first dozen. There were close to eighty interviews total, and we used twenty-nine. Also, by piecing the scene together and talking to people about it and giving them information, it helped spark their memories. We were able to talk about specific details, and that really helped them to make some connections they might not have been able to do otherwise.
SM I mentioned that I was working on this to a Cambodian friend; he’s in his twenties, but he grew up hearing Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea. Is this music popular in hindsight, or is it a generational thing? Is it commonly played in Cambodia, or just among the people who were there for that moment?
JP I think the music is everywhere there, though they don’t really know much about the people who created it, how it was developed, or the influences—the history of the music is totally unknown. But the music itself and the songs—people there know all the songs and all the words. Even younger people know them, but of course they’re building their own music scene now. So, it’s still considered an older generation’s music, but certainly heard everywhere—out of car windows and in shops. It wasn’t forgotten there—the details of it were forgotten. The details and the history of it were almost lost. I think it was important to do this when we did because the people who were part of that scene, they’re all older now. They’re not going to be around for much longer. Hopefully they will, but memories start to fade, and I think the timing on our part was crucial to getting it done.
SM Speaking logistically, can you talk a little bit about releasing this film within a limited sphere? The soundtrack is also being released, and that’s a major coup in terms of making this music available in the United States.
JP Well, I think the soundtrack is really special because, yeah, there’s been a lot of compilations of this type of music released, but what people don’t understand is that the music has been perverted in so many ways. As far as we know, none of the master tapes survived. So, people have been putting out compilations that are tapes of tapes of tapes, and a lot of the music got remixed in the ’80s by Cambodians after the war, after the Khmer Rouge. Since they had poor quality recordings to work with, they’d usually add cymbals or high hats or a lot of other instruments. I guess the high end the tapes kind of wore away, so finding clean versions that are good quality is very, very difficult. And the soundtrack was mastered by Michael Graves, who recently won a Grammy for his work on a series of Hank Williams recordings.
Also, we have our vinyl collector, Nate Hun, who’s Cambodian-American. He sort of knows where all the best pieces of vinyl and tapes are throughout the world. So, between those two guys, then Nate and I compiling this soundtrack and sequencing it together, I think you’re going to hear the music like never before. I know that because I’ve never heard it like this before. And other people who really know the music say the same thing—and not only with sound quality. I also wrote liner notes about the artists that are very comprehensive, and that’s a lot of information that just doesn’t exist anywhere else but in the film.
SM Is there anything you really had to cut out of the film for length requirements? Or was there any drastic difference with earlier cuts? With documentaries, sometimes it’s a reiterative process where you sort of chip it down, add stuff or take stuff away.
JP There were other singers and bands, and we couldn’t fit everyone in for a variety of reasons. It would have been too much information for people to absorb, and I also wanted the history of the country to be part of the story. It’s not strictly a “music documentary,” it’s also a historical overview of modern Cambodia. Also, because so much of the archival material has been lost, there were some people who were important to the scene, but of which nothing remained. It’s hard to include them if there’s no music or images. They just become a name that you’re referencing, and it can’t really resonate for the viewer. There are a fair amount of artists in this film, and I really wanted to show there was a big music scene. We had to build with what we had and create these characters so that they resonate. I think the film has a lot of information in it. Hopefully it’s not too much. It’s pretty chock-full of stuff about both the music and the history. A lot of people are saying they’re appreciating seeing the film a second time because there is so much.
SM I’ve only seen it once, but I believe it. There's a tall shadow under the war, the Khmer Rouge; it's maybe Cambodia’s most prominent defining image in a lot of people’s minds—by definition, a stereotype. So maybe forty-five minutes into the movie, I looked at my watch and thought, Wow, the Khmer Rouge have barely even been mentioned so far! I feared the film was about to take a stark, dystopian turn, shift focus onto the purges, mass-murders, repressions, etc. And that happens, but it doesn’t. Everything is rooted in the experiences of the interviewees. I'm wondering if this was something you strived for.
JP Oh yeah, everything in the editing room was very deliberate. I spent a lot of time in there thinking about—even in terms of how violence if portrayed—the images we used, how news is disseminated. In terms of how the Khmer Rouge era is portrayed, I knew from the beginning that a lot of that goes a long way. It’s so heavy and so dark. It can obliterate the story very quickly. We tried to always keep the perspective through the lens of music. In the early parts of the film maybe it was harder to deal with the history because it’s separate from the musicians. But once the Civil War happens and the coup happens, the musician’s lives really get pulled into the political side of the story—the history. So yes, you keep it through their perspective.
There’s one new character introduced from the Khmer Rouge era, and that was something we did toward the end. His name is Meas Samong, and he was known for being this comedic singer. His songs were always bawdy and funny. He was sort of this cartoon character. One of our interviewees recounts how Samong was taken away to be killed because he was goofing around on a chapey, which is essentially a two-stringed banjo. We play a part of one of his songs, and it’s total sexual innuendo: “If I can jump into your pond, I’ll be reborn. I’m a frog.” It was just so interesting to me because we don’t have a lot of stories about people remembering how people died or even being taken away to be killed, but we had that one. And it turns out that Meas Samong really represents the complete opposite of the Khmer Rouge. In the footage we have of him, he’s always smiling or hitting the bongos or the conga drums. So, it was very stark in terms of these two parallel parts of what it is to be a human being. On one hand, you have the creative side, which is positive and really fun and intense. On the other side, you have the darkest part—genocide, and this hatred that can be prompted. Everybody has both sides in them to some degree.
I think when I first sat down to watch the first cut, the power of those two things coming head to head really floored me. When creating the assembly, I was working on individual scenes, having ideas, and wanting to develop characters and present historical points that need to come out. Then, to see it all strung together for the first time, it really hit me that it’s a very powerful story. It does cover these two very distinct sides of what it is to be a human being—two very extreme sides. I don’t know if I answered your question. (laughter)
SM No, that’s a fantastic example. I guess the other thing is that the music almost becomes sort of a weird, self-fulfilling prophecy— a lot of it is romantic, longing, and withdrawn.
JP Yeah, Cambodians love melodrama. Even before the war, before they went through all this. What’s interesting to me, too, was that the lyrics are so great. I think a lot of the Westerners who got turned on to this stuff didn’t know what the words were, but the music was just so great it didn’t matter. I’m one of those people, and, in the course of making the film, I started to get the lyrics translated. I started to realize that the songwriting is as good as the music. So, people have said that Cambodians love songs of despair and deception, and that they’re into heavily dramatic things. A lot of these songs are about, you know, wayward love, or scorned women and the men who cheat on them.
SM Let me attempt this question and if it doesn’t make sense, I’ll try again. There is a certain sense, socio-politically in the context of the wider history of the Vietnam War and Southeast Asia. There is a sense, at least in my reading, that the Khmer Rouge was relatively avoidable—at least, if the Nixon Administration had really wanted to go to the mat and prevent this from happening, they could have. Did any of your interviewees talk about that? It’s in the film, in the context of the way it’s depicted. It sort of arises as a worst-case scenario based on the Cambodian policy of neutrality.
JP I think it was a perfect storm of events, naturally. Could it have been avoided? Sure. I think the film tries to show what aided their ascendancy. Under Sihanouk, you know it’s a tough neighborhood. The Diem brothers had been executed by the CIA in South Vietnam in, I think, 1963. Sihanouk was well aware of that. Not to make excuses for him, but I think he understood he was in a tough neighborhood, and he was also incredibly brutal in terms of any internal domestic challenges to him. I mean, there was a Democratic party in Cambodia in the early ’60s; he brutalized them and ran them out of the cities. In saying that, he also managed to control the Khmer Rouge. They were basically a non-entity until the coup happened, then he joined forces with them. So, you have to remember he was the last great god-king in Cambodia, and people, especially the peasants in the countryside, revered him as such. Not just a king, but a god-king.
When he joined forces with the Khmer Rouge, the first thing they did was have him tape a radio message that stated everyone should join him and the Khmer Rouge, bringing him back to power. And that was played in the nation, and certainly throughout the countryside. It was a huge factor for recruiting people.
JP So, the second part of this is the US bombings, which radicalized them as well. On one hand, you have a god-king telling you, “You must join me in this fight,” against the Americans and Lon Nol. Then you have them being bombed back to the Stone Age, and the Khmer Rouge using that, as if to say, “See, this is what they’re trying to do—they’re trying to kill us all.” Before I even went there, I read this great book called Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia by William Shawcross. It’s an amazing book, really well researched and written. It goes into detail about the specifics of the coup, Sihanouk, all the players, the bombings, and the involvement of the US. There are some people out there who are going to say that these bombings had nothing to do with it, of course. We have people in the film who were Khmer Rouge out in the countryside, saying, “Yeah this really pissed us off.” (laughter) I don’t really think it’s open for debate. You can debate it, but it’s just hard to put numbers on any of it. That’s the real issue. It’s hard to put numbers on how many Cambodians were killed in the countryside by American bombings. There’s all kinds of estimates, but no one really knows for sure.
SM So, there’s a massive amount of archival material to it. Could you talk about your discovery process and where that came from? If it was easy, if it was hard, if it was mostly available when you got there, or if you had to really dig for it?
JP When I started it, everyone who knew Cambodia, or worked in Cambodia, or were Cambodian—everyone said, “You won’t find anything, it’s all been destroyed.” I went to Phnom Penh for the first time in 2001 to work with a camera operator, with Matt Dillon on City of Ghosts. I could see Phnom Penh was a modern city. They had their own architecture, which was very distinct and interesting. Look it up, it’s called New Khmer architecture. All those buildings were just empty and in a state of decay, but you could see at one time they had been pretty groovy places. And what we’re talking about wasn’t that long ago—I guess, only about thirty years.
Anyway, I thought that was really fascinating, and I was curious as to what really happened. I started reading a lot, I read Sideshow and some of David Chandler’s books. We were there for three and a half months doing that film. What was it like here? Everyone kept saying Phnom Penh was such a great place before the war—magical, peaceful. It was a paradise with great music. But I couldn’t find anything. You couldn’t even find a book of photos about it at that point. It became this big mystery. Well, how is that possible? Then when I heard the music, how varied and great it was, I thought, “Man, there had to be this great music scene here.” I started with nothing and slowly dug. It was one baby step at a time the whole way.
The first big cache was getting permission to use the King’s films. It turned out he had been a big filmmaker in the ’60s and had made these Bollywood-like films where there was always a musical number every so often. Of course, he used the musicians of the day. The negatives were out of the country during the Khmer Rouge, and the tapes I was shown were these really bad VHS dubs at the Department of Cinema. The woman there said that the King lived in Beijing, and that I’d have to go to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and fax him. It was like, “Yeah, good luck, see you later.” Fortunately, I knew someone in the US government who happened to know the King and had an audience with him. They had bonded over, of all things, Wong Kar-Wai films, and they started an email correspondence. So, he emailed the King, saying, “We’re doing this project, can we use your films?” He emailed us back after a few days saying yes, with the letterhead signed. So, I went back to the Department of Cinema with that letter, and she almost fell out of her chair, like, “How did you get this!” Anyway, that opened a lot of doors.
SM That’s amazing.
JP But even then, to find good copies of his films I had to go to Paris. It took time and money. At that point I wasn’t funded. I was doing it on my own dime, which was a very small dime unfortunately. But it came along, and people came together, people who had photos or a little piece of footage here and there. The INA (National Audiovisual Institute) in France has very extensive archives on Cambodia. A lot of the footage came from them. But also I think the album covers are really important visually. That’s something we relied on, using them to give a sense of place and time, because they’re so great—the colors and the graphic designs.
SM The graphic design is spectacular.
JP Ultimately there’s not as much great archival footage as I would like. I would love to see Ros Sereysothea really sing. I would love to see Pen Ran really sing. We don’t have that, but we cobbled together what we could. Again, the editing process was very intensive. I felt like I got to make the film I wanted to make. But there are people who don’t understand that there is a lack of archival material because we did such a good job here. We did a screening of a rough cut and someone said, “Why don’t you have footage of Pen Ran playing live? I want to see that. Put that in the film!” (laughter) But that’s fine. In a way, that means we were successful.
SM A little context goes a long way.
Steve Macfarlane is a writer, programmer, and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A head programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in publications including Slant, The L, and The Brooklyn Rail.