Don't Think I've Forgotten
Study Areas: Combodia, Rock and Roll, Khmer Rouge, popular culture.
The brutal legacies of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge loom large in Cambodian history and in most books and films about the country. In this sense, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten may feel familiar to viewers acquainted with media portrayals of recent Khmer history. However, what makes this film unique – and uniquely powerful – is its detailed account of the richness and vitality of the culture that was all but destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
After gaining independence from French colonial rule in 1953, King Norodom Sihanouk aimed to keep Cambodia neutral even as war and conflict spread in neighboring Vietnam and Laos. An avid music lover and performer, the French-educated King Sihanouk encouraged the development of a vibrant culture and music scene in the country. It is this music scene, which retained a distinctly Khmer flavor despite the strong influence of French and American music and which functioned as a site of both joy and despair, on which the film focuses.
Through the extensive use of historical photos and music video clips, as well as contemporary interviews with musicians, the film paints a rich portrait of the love affair Cambodians had with rock music during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Viewers come to learn about both the music and the personal lives of some of Cambodia’s biggest rock stars from the time, including Sinn Sisamouth, whose talent shines in the archival film clips. The film hints at the tension between some musicians’ interest in incorporating French and American musical influences into their art and their desire to cater to Khmer tastes, but suggests that this tension remained largely depoliticized until, of course, the conflict in neighboring Vietnam and Laos began to spread to Cambodia.
As the 1970s progressed, it became increasingly clear that Cambodia would not be able to escape the conflict spreading in the region. The film poignantly depicts deep changes in the musical and cultural scene in Cambodia, particularly in, Phnom Penh, that resulted from the spreading conflict. As the Khmer Rouge ascended to power and Pol Pot vowed to purge Western influence from the country, songs began to shift from a focus on love to war and patriotism. Nightclubs, which once represented popular opportunities for people to gather and listen to new music, could open only in the afternoons to avoid the dangers that came with darkness. Musicians who had aligned with the west in their music began to hide their true identities for fear of persecution.
As the film shows, during the forced relocation of nearly two million Cambodians to the countryside to enable the Khmer Rouge’s vision of an agrarian Communist Cambodia, music remained a powerful force in the country, albeit in different ways. As they worked in the fields, Cambodians softly sang songs to keep their spirits up and as a reminder of better times. As the regime wiped out all signs of the influence of foreign music, destroying both recordings and, tragically, the musicians themselves, it introduced musical propaganda designed to help the Khmer Rouge circulate its vision for the country. Eventually, in 1979, the broadcasting of popular music on Phnom Penh-based radio stations signaled that it was safe to return to the city.
Perhaps the most powerful part of Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten comes near the conclusion of the film, as musicians and performers who survived the Khmer Rouge’s systematic killing of intellectuals, musicians, and artists reflect on their survival. Interviewees whom we met in the beginning of the film as smiling, laughing singers and musicians reappear here crying and mourning the loss of their siblings, parents, children, and friends. Their deeply personal reflections on the loss of their loved ones are made all the more moving by their acute awareness of how close they themselves came to losing their lives. The reflections of family members of killed and disappeared artists are similarly powerful and highlight how difficult it is to mourn those whose deaths remain shrouded in questions.
As the film closes, we are given a taste of how much Cambodia has rebuilt following the horror of the Khmer Rouge. Cycles of western influence repeat as we hear contemporary American-influenced Khmer rap and pop music and see clips of musical performances that will feel familiar to western viewers. Trepidation over what this western influence and rapid economic progress might mean for traditional Cambodian values and culture also reappears, but is left as an open question.
The extensive archival film footage and discussion of the qualities of the pre-Khmer Rouge music scene are, without question, a huge part of what makes Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten unique. However, because the first forty minutes are devoted entirely to this detail and largely forgo critical examination of the larger context, this first section of the film can feel a bit slow and overly detailed. The strongest moments in this section come when the intersections of music and politics are explored in direct ways.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten will, of course, be of particular interest to scholars and students of Cambodia. Although parts of the story offered by the film feel like heavily trodden territory, the rich musical detail and moving reflections by former musical stars offer a new perspective on the impact of the Khmer Rouge on Cambodia’s once-thriving cultural scene. More broadly, this film will be of interest to viewers attentive to the intersections between music and politics. Certainly, the film thoughtfully traces the ways music can be used for entertainment, propaganda, and relief, depending on the larger political environment. The film also makes it clear that when conflict erupts, it is difficult for musicians – particularly for those who are close to the people – to maintain a neutral position.
Ellen Prusinski is an Assistant Professor of Education and Coordinator of Engaged and Experiential Learning at Centre College. Her research focuses on nonformal education and migrant worker NGOs in Indonesia.
To watch the trailer or purchase this film, visit the Don't Think I've Forgotten website.
Last Updated: July 8, 2015.