Last month at the AFI Silver, a one-night screening of “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll” featured a brief performance by some of the old rock and rollers who appear in the film. This week, the documentary, which looks at the devastating impact of the anti-Western, anti-bourgeois Pol Pot regime on the Cambodian popular music scene, returns for a week-long run.
The band may be gone, but the film is filled with echoes of the music — a blend of French and American pop, traditional Cambodian songs and Afro-Cuban rhythms — that disappeared when the Khmer Rouge, under the Communist dictatorship of Pol Pot, came to power in 1975.
More moving than the music, snippets of which make up much of the film, are the memories of those few who survived the purge of Western influence. “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” takes its name from a song by Sinn Sisamouth, a singer described in the film as the father of Cambodian pop music: He also was one of many artists who died in the Killing Fields under the Khmer Rouge, for whom anything smacking of foreign culture was suspect.
The film by John Pirozzi takes a two-pronged approach to history, laying out the political narrative alongside the musical one. “Forgotten” relies a bit too heavily on static shots of album covers and paintings of some of the “disappeared” performers, but it’s still a fervent cry for the power of music.
In talking about the integral, deeply rooted role of the arts in Cambodian culture, one of the film’s talking heads remarks that the absence of music would be “a scandal.” He isn’t wrong, but in context, his description seems an understatement.
What happened to almost an entire generation of musicians in Cambodia isn’t a scandal. As “Forgotten” makes powerfully, passionately clear, it’s a tragedy.
Unrated. At AFI Silver Theatre. Contains old war footage.
In French, Khmer and English with subtitles. 105 minutes.