Rock ‘n’ roll and the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of Cambodians may seem like two very different topics. But to director John Pirozzi, they are very much intertwined. Below, Pirozzi discusses his film, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll, that explains why.
International Examiner: There have been several highly dramatic films made about the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. What compelled you to tell the story from the point of view of musicians?
John Pirozzi: So many other films that deal with the Khmer Rouge have made them, or the awful period of history they produced, front and center to the narrative of their stories. Of course these films are essential in helping document and understand this time, but I wanted to make a film that was essentially different. I wanted to make a film about the music because I feel the music is fantastic.
The music also represents a hopeful time for Cambodia before the country entered one of the darkest periods of modern history. Cambodia was known as a very special place internationally before the civil war began in 1970. I found it very curious that very few traces of that time seemed to have survived the Khmer Rouge era.
I wanted to see if we could reconstruct this time in some fashion through the music so that we could better understand what the period in Cambodia’s history before the Khmer Rouge was like.
IE: How challenging was it to locate archival footage and music?
Pirozzi: Archival footage was extremely hard to come by but, bit by bit, we were able to piece together what we needed. Many people cared deeply about helping us tell this story. We ultimately created a community of people who contributed to bringing so many pieces of an extremely difficult puzzle together, a community that wanted to see the film realized.
Actual music from the period was initially easy to find as much of it has been put out over the years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, but I discovered quickly that much of it had been remixed, additional instrumentation had been added in an effort to add dynamic range to the poor sound quality of the music due to it not coming from the master sources. As far as we can tell, the masters did not survive the Khmer Rouge.
That being said, through the course of making the film, we began to discover that there were vinyl collectors who had been able to amass collections of original vinyl. Their collections essentially have become the new masters, and we were very fortunate to be able to use many of these records in the film and soundtrack.
IE: Some of the musicians and singers had some incredible tales to tell. Was there anyone in particular that moved you the most?
Pirozzi: The editing process was difficult for a number of reasons, not the least being each person we interviewed could have been a subject in a film devoted entirely to them. Their stories of having their very identities erased and having to begin life over with everything and everyone they knew forever changed were staggering concepts for me to even begin to contemplate. Each person had their own personal way of dealing with being placed in this unbelievable position. I was moved equally by them all.
IE: It’s amazing to see the strong Western influence on Cambodians in the days before the Internet. To what do you attribute that?
Pirozzi: Cambodia had always maintained a fairly benign connection to the Western world. The French did control the country for close to 100 years, but they came in at the bequest of the Cambodian monarchy at that time as it was feeling threatened/squeezed by its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam.
As France came in peacefully, they also exited in the same manner in 1953 when Prince Sihanouk demanded independence for his country. The reality is Sihanouk maintained deep ties to France as most of his advisers remained French, and French was the language spoken by the Cambodian elite.
With independence, the youth of the country looked both outward and inward to create a new identity. While they embraced what spoke to them from Western influences, they also maintained elements of their deeply rooted, ancient culture. It’s reflected in the architecture and, of course, the music from this period.
IE: You’re American and your associate producer is Cambodian. Did you have any differences over how you wanted to this film to be created, or did you see eye-to-eye on it?
Pirozzi: Dr. LinDa Saphan is an Urban Anthropologist with Phnom Penh being the focus of her studies. She was a crucial part of the process of making the film, not only in being able to bring specific nuanced information about Cambodian culture to my attention, but also because she conducted many of the interviews in the film as she speaks all three languages represented in the film.
She understood the trajectory of the film as it was being shaped in the edit room so it enabled us to get specific information needed to make the story cohesive. Often, when interviewing someone about such a rich and varied subject, avenues present themselves in the interview process that I could not foresee when preparing the questions for the interview. Dr. Saphan was always keen to explore these roads while conducting the interview so that the film could be as accurate and complete as possible.
‘Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock And Roll’ directed by John Pirozzi opens in Seattle for an extended run from June 19 to June 25 at SIFF Film Center at the corner of Warren Avenue and Republican Streets in Seattle Center. Email [email protected] for tickets or call (206) 324-9996.