Film preview: Director John Pirozzi traces the history of early Cambodian rock 'n' roll in "Don't Think I've Forgotten"

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

In “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” director John Pirozzi delves into the history of 1960s and 1970s Cambodian rock ’n’ roll, an era of music history that was all but erased from existence with the 1975 arrival of the Khmer Rouge, which ruled the country for four years and orchestrated a genocide that resulted in the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians.

Yet, somehow, the music survived, a fact Cambodia native Mol Kagnol attributed to the deep, immediate connection Cambodians felt with the art form.

“That question [of how the music survived] has come up before, but I didn’t have a good answer until my recent reflection back to those days,” said Kagnol, guitarist and founding member of Baksey Cham Krong, generally recognized as Cambodia’s first surf-rock guitar band. “After the first show [Baksey Cham Krong played] on TV, the next day I saw a bunch of kids on the sidewalk in front of my house playing with a broomstick and pretending it was a guitar. The Khmer Rouge couldn’t kill that. [The music] got too deep into the people.”

Pirozzi’s interest in the subject stretches back to 2001, when he spent three months living in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh while working as a camera operator on the Matt Dillon-directed “City of Ghosts.”

“You could feel something in the air, like it had been a much different city before the war,” the director said in a recent phone interview (Pirozzi’s documentary screens at the Wexner Center Thursday and Friday, May 28 and 29). “Then when I heard the music [via the 2000 compilation Cambodian Rocks], there were so many different styles and the quality was so high that I knew right away that there must have been an amazing scene here. I got really curious and wanted to learn more about the music, but there was nowhere to go to find anything out. So it was my own curiosity that got me started to make the film.”

Part historical document, part celebration of a nearly lost form, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” manages to strike a delicate balance between depicting the brutality of the Khmer’s reign and the liveliness of the scene that preceded its arrival.

“The severity of what happened there needed to come through, and at the same time I wanted to end with a note of — not hopefulness — but certainly you get some sense the music survived,” Pirozzi said. “That’s a positive thing ultimately. It’s something Cambodians still access and cherish and connect with. I don’t think too many people are singing the Khmer Rouge National Anthem anymore. Hopefully the film is a testament to the strength of the music, and to the resilience of the Cambodian people.”

Photo courtesy of “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten

Wexner Center for the Arts

7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, May 28 and 29

1871 N. High St., Campus