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“You Won’t Find Anything. It’s All Been Destroyed.”

A new documentary on the Khmer Rouge resurrects a lost Cambodia.

Photo from personal collection of Samley Hong

Pol Pot might have anticipated that posterity would not treat him kindly. Under his command, between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge oversaw the extermination of an estimated two million Cambodians—nearly a quarter of the country’s entire population and an entire culture. Anything that could have been considered at odds with the goals of fanatical socialism was destroyed; artists and intellectuals were hunted with particular zeal. It’s in this setting that Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, a new documentary by director John Pirozzi, works its subtle magic. 

The movie is a meticulously pieced together narrative of Phnom Penh’s Golden Age, an homage to the music of the time, songs that would echo from speakers to off-duty rickshaw drivers, middle-class students, royalty, and rice-farmers alike. Part Afro-Cuban jazz, part French Yé-Yé with a healthy dose of psychedelic surf rock and traditional Cambodian microtonal singing, the sound is thrillingly new for American audiences.

Through a series of interviews with the survivors of the genocide, Pirozzi manages to resurrect the joy, creativity, and passion of a nearly forgotten past without ignoring the horrors that lurk in the periphery. I sat down with him recently to discuss his methods of research, rock ‘n’ roll as a form of protest, and the bright future of Cambodian cinema.

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten begins its theatrical run in New York on April 22. The director and several of the musicians featured will be attending screenings and, later, performing a concert at City Winery on April 24.

You previously made a documentary, Sleepwalking Through Meekong (2007), that is also about Cambodian musicians. When did your interest with Cambodian pop music start?

Well I was a camera operator in the Matt Dillon film City of Ghosts (2002) that was shot in Phnom Penh, and I had never been before. In the film there’s this musical number where James Cann is singing an old Ros Serey Sothea song. Looking at it through the screen, it clicked how great this music was. Back in the states, a friend mailed me a copy of Cambodian Rocks, which is this great CD from 1996, sort of the Holy Grail at the time for non-Cambodians who wanted access to the music. But it didn’t really have anything about the lyrics or who the artists were or their history. Between listening to this CD and my time in Phnom Penh, I started reading everything I could about this period and the music. It seemed to be a key to this past that we didn’t really have access to.

Obviously a challenge to this film was finding original footage and music after a regime that went to great lengths to destroy these parts of history. Where did you start?

You want me to reveal my sources? I’m kidding! Look I really want people to go and do more with what’s out there. 

It’s impossible to overstate how much putting word out in the Khmer community helped. We got back all these personal photos and old album covers. Those are all really great. But when I started, everyone told me told me “You won’t find anything. It’s all been destroyed.” Not just from the Khmer Rouge, but we’re talking about the tropics and there just weren’t archives. So a lot of material was lost or decomposed. Also, for the first ten or so years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge people weren’t thinking about archiving their past; they were thinking about eating and surviving.

So in 2004 I went to Phnom Penh and visited the Department of Cinema. I knew the woman who ran it and told her what I was looking for. She just said, “Come back tomorrow.” The next day she put me in this room with a VCR and an old beat up TV and handed me a stack of VHS tapes: They were all of King Sihanouk’s films from the ’60s. They had a sort of Bollywood feel to them—there’d be a dramatic scene, and then a comedy scene, and then an action scene, and then a musical number, and then all over again. In these musical sequences he’d use all the stars of the time. I said: “This is amazing. It there any way we can use this? Are there better copies?” And she responded, “Well the King now lives in Beijing. If you go to the royal palace you can fax him,” with this look that said good luck. What she didn’t know was that I had a friend who had corresponded with the King before, so he emailed the King and three days later we got a response with an official seal and letterhead that gave us permission to use the film.

Outside that we looked in other places like the INA (Institut National de l’Audiovisuel). What’s genius about the INA, unlike most archives, is that everything is online, so a lot could be done at home. We also found this facility in Minneapolis that was advertising that they had all this footage from Cambodia during the ’50s. It turns out that some guy was going through his aunt and uncles house and found a box of 8mm film and gave it to the facility. There ended up being about two hours of footage of Phnom Penh.

Did you encounter anyone who didn’t want to discuss or go into memories that were so emotionally traumatic and upsetting?

There were a few times when interviewees broke down, which is always hard. I’d just turn the camera off and pan it away. But lots of people were open, even happy, to talk about their experiences. Perhaps because nobody has really asked them about it much before, especially not in front of a camera, which I think gave it a certain feeling and made the interview seem personal and important. I think they wanted to record their memories of the happy times, and the way the film is structured we spend a lot of time on the good times before the Khmer Rouge.

The film was supplemented with recreations that looked strikingly real. How did you get that aesthetic and feeling?

I was sort of loath to do them, but in the end we had to have them. I think you can always tell just by how the camera moves. If it’s old there’s not much camera movement. I shot in super-16 and reversal-film, which I think helped it look more like that time period. One of the advantages of making this film over such a long period of time was that I got to go back again and again and meet people and build trust and bring them into the project. I even met my wife, Linda Saphan, who is the head researcher for the film. She is Cambodian but grew up in Montreal and was working on her PhD in Phnom Penh. Linda had incredible resources. She spoke English and Khmer and French fluently and was able to find all these communities and find everything, from the old furniture to clothes.

Much of the narrative of “postcolonialism” tends to view cultural expansion as a form of aggression: western values, big corporations, mass-produced clothing, and consumerism coming in and displacing old cultures. How do you think this story fits into that way of parsing out power relations?

That’s a good question and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. Look, there will be critics who will say, “Well American culture destroyed Cambodia,” and maybe there is an offshoot to that worth looking at. But overwhelmingly the musicians I spoke with just said: “We love this music. It wasn’t forced on us. It was what we listened to and what was available and what spoke to us.” The way I look at it, music as an art form transcends borders. These musicians gravitated towards these genres and did things with them. The politics and the history are a completely different thing from that.

There’s a rich history of music as protest, from Nina Simone to the Clash through to Pussy Riot. I was expecting the music in the film to fit into this sort of narrative, but so much of the music seemed to be a way of finding a repast from death and war and oppression. Do you think the music featured was a form of protest?

It’s different. In the editing process one thing I was always looking for was when history and politics intersected. And looking specifically for the more of the protest/socially conscious music. But then I realized it didn’t really exist in the same ways it did here. I mean it’s a completely different culture: It’s a Buddhist culture, their way of relating to the power structures is different, and so on. And even here in the States it was mostly in the ’60s that things broke open.

The film premiered in Phnom Penh. What were some of the most interesting reactions you received from Cambodian audiences?

The premiere was about 800 people in the Chaktomuk Theatre. I hadn’t screened it before a public audience before, so I was incredibly nervous. The film is essentially their film, not mine.  It was a big undertaking, just in terms of the responsibility to do it right. The famous architect Vann Molyvann came the screening. The city he helped build was destroyed in front of him and here was his work again on the screen. He was deeply moved. But for a lot of the younger people, who hadn’t experienced this time period, it was equally powerful. There aren’t very many extensive visual representations of that time and place and scene.  

Right after the screening we had this concert with the musicians from the film. I wasn’t prepared for how powerful that would be. The film ends on a kind of bittersweet note: By the end you see what happens to the musicians and so many other Cambodians. But hearing the music performed brings things to a different place because it reminds you that ultimately, through the people, the music has survived. Despite all it’s been through. There’ll never be another screening like that.