Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: a Documentary Review

Producer/Director/Director of Photography John Pirozzi (Left) is a consummate filmmaker who just finished an expert documentary now available for our enjoyment. “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll”, is a huge treat for fans of world music and twice the treat for fans of the filmmaking process. Pacific Northwest opportunities to see “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” occur 3 times during the Seattle International Film Festival and at the Pickford Film Center in Bellingham, WA from June 19th – 25th.  I propose this film as a top contender for SIFF’s best documentary award as it should have won Best Feature at the 2015 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival but was not in the feature competition. Upon watching we witness how the history of groovy, beautiful Cambodian rock, funk, and lounge music was wounded but survived Cambodia’s subsequent inclusion in the Vietnam War.

Pirozzi arrived to this film – 10 years ago – with deeply developed documentary and narrative filmmaking skills. “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” is Pirozzi’s 2nd feature documentary although he started this one before “Sleepwalking in the Mekong” (2007). Pirozzi’s two directorial efforts are very different with ‘Sleepwalking’ being a travelogue with Los Angeles band Dengue Fever on their first visit to Phnom Penh to share their own Cambodian/American musical Kroeung. “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” is Pirozzi’s 14th documentary as Director of Photography (his 29th film as DP overall) amidst a career in film and television begun as a grip in 1988. Pirozzi’s talents in narrative filmmaking are seen (more accurately – effectively hidden) in his quality period piece recreations (filmed on super 16mm reversal film) of 1960’s dancers twisting to variations of western surf music and rural Cambodians taking funky breaks with local bands playing on oxcarts.

In the US, Canada, and Cambodia Pirozzi formulated a community of contributing partners including the Documentation Center of Cambodia and the U.S. Embassy. His many trips to Cambodia employed local filmmakers, actors and finders because, “Involving Cambodians as much as possible in the process was a big part of the film being authentic.”(2). He also met (and later married) Associate Producer and Assistant Professor of Sociology LinDa Saphan,Ph.D., who is an artist and Cambodian historian interested in popular cultural interchange. Together they filmed 80 interviews in 4 countries using 3 languages to hear from Khmer Rouge survivors and relatives of non-survivors while building out missing historic documentation. Pirozzi told Tom Schnabel “I think the interviews are really important because there is so much information that didn’t make it into the film about the history of the music. And we are talking to some different archival facilities”(2).

Because no prior documentation or archival material had been organized Pirozzi first sought cultural assistance from Cambodian ex-patriots living in Long Beach, CA, near his film work in Los Angeles. “as people found out that we were doing this they actually contacted me and brought pieces of the puzzle to me so it was a real communal effort to make the film.”(4). Of course not all the useful puzzle pieces found their own way to Pirozzi’s project and central to a music documentary is high quality audio. “Finding clean original recordings was difficult. About halfway through making the film, I wrote a massive e-mail to everybody connected to the project saying, ‘Does anyone know where to find clean stuff?’ That worked,”(3).

Pirozzi’s international networking, and his opportunity to use deposed Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s commissioned cultural films from the 1960s, produce a musical history represented only by its remnants because source material is not available for all pre-war popular Cambodian musicians. “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.”(5). As Pirrozzi reported to Andrea Chase, “I really started to understand that this was a huge responsibility to get right. And that was always forefront in my mind when making the film. So, some people say, ‘wow 9 years –it’s a long time’ but ultimately, to tell this story I feel like 9 years is not a long time.” (1).  However, 9 years in production surely must have been difficult as Pirozzi drew confidence from the music itself, telling Todd Schnabel, “I always knew I had great music…The music and the strength and power of the music was something I could always look back to or listen back to and that just propelled me forward whenever I needed that jolt, which was actually quite often in this case.” (2).

From the volumes of newly captured archival material (interviews, music, photos) a good story must emerge and Pirozzi had a thematic focus as compelling as the music right from the beginning – track how Cambodian pop music crashed into a wretched period of Cambodian political history.  As complicated as that story could have become, “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”(5). For the viewer this becomes Pirozzi’s smoothest slight of cinematic hand, to have us happily and intently sharing the artist joy of Cambodian Pop music to suddenly realize you (as they) are stuck in an unnecessary political war certain to ruin the party.

The Vietnam War in this film is defined by what was erased as much as what remains, political rights and wrongs made clear through the musical joy turned sadness within the musicians, families and fans. “I wanted to go deep into the history because I found the history of modern Cambodia to be really fascinating…finding where the music and history intersected became the big question in the editing room”(2). Pirozzi found and maintained this political-musical intersection across interviews and archival footage by using some unusual post-production diligence. “One of the things that we did in the editing process, which took time but I’m really glad we did, was we sub-titled every aspect of every interview. I didn’t just go through the transcripts and pick clips, I had everything sub-titled so we could go through it and really not miss anything.” (1).  Beyond its filmic benefit the English-subtitled source material is being made available to archival groups like the Documentation Center of Cambodia with whom the filmmakers collaborated.

After seeing the film I did not feel I missed anything but instead I felt full of pop music joy and an eagerness to jump on the bandwagon for this fantastic film. This impressive work documents a flash of artistic creativity targeted for cultural extinction but able to survive a modern genocide. I look forward to subsequent viewings which, Pirozzi suggests, hold even deeper revelations concerning culture, war, and human nature. “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.”(5). And yet, the film’s world premiere looks like it was a blast.

Sources:

(1). Behind the Scenes with Andrea Chase. https://beta.prx.org/stories/148969 (Accessed May 16, 2015).

(2). Tom Schnabel’s Rhythm Planet. http://blogs.kcrw.com/rhythmplanet/show-107-dont-think-ive-forgotten/ Posted May 15, 2015 (Accessed May 16, 2015)

(3). Q&A: John Pirozzi on “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll” by Craig Hubert. http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/1140332/qa-john-pirozzi-on-dont-think-ive-forgotten-cambodias-lost# Posted April 22, 2015 (Accessed May 18, 2015)

(4). Leonard Lopate Show WYNC. https://www.wnyc.org/radio/#/ondemand/446731 (Accessed May 14, 2015)

(5). John Pirozzi by Stephan MacFarlane. Recovering the history of Cambodia’s sound. http://bombmagazine.org/article/9406514/john-pirozzi (Accessed May 16, 2015)

 

Documentation Center of Cambodia YouTube Site: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3QPTefh7bQ

Dengue Fever – Tiger Phone Card on Luxury Wafers Sessions: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPZp1onody4