by Freda Nada
Photo Credit: Promotional Image
Film Notes is a bimonthly column about Asian film by Freda Nada, a writer currently based in New York Chinatown.
“DON’T THINK I’VE FORGOTTEN” is a film that celebrates pre-revolution Cambodian music culture. The film frames Cambodia’s ‘lost’ trove of rock and roll music in the obvious historical context of the Vietnam War and the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The film is a stock cultural-historical documentary looking at a kitsch cultural phenomenon in a foreign country.
Music and musicians featured in the film are intriguing if uncannily familiar as derivative from French and American music styles. Interviews in French, English, and Khmer with surviving musicians color a time of relative ease and excess in Cambodian history. Between these, animated sequences stand in for footage either lost, destroyed, or nonexistent. The effect is to launch the featured singers and bands to a near mythical status. Their music transgresses the trauma of unwanted military strife.
This is where the documentary’s focus is most problematic; so easily does the film elide american responsibility for simultaneous cultural imperialism and military atrocities. The complexities of what happened in Cambodia in the 1970’s are reduced to a more simplistic narrative of how war (with no clear instigator) came to destroy the melodious freedom of peacetime pastimes. Of course, the most popular Khmer musicians, whose art mimicked western music, reminisce about and even revere colonial times. A quick cut in the film reveals the seemingly subversive act of listening in on American GI radio broadcasts.
Nevertheless, the fact that fragments tracing Cambodian rock music have survived and can be compiled is fascinating. And it’s not to be ignored that while the film deals with deeply sentimental subjects of a bygone era, it never does so in a particularly sappy way. Interviewees for the most part were able to hold their composure in a characteristically stoic manner.
As a retrospective, the featured music does feel impactful as a post-global expression of a culture catching up to modernity with all of the expected melancholic undertones and backstories. Perhaps it’s unfortunate that the intrinsic value of what we perceive to be ‘Cambodian’ music is conflated with being an object of historical interest and preservation. This is the feeling that an entire country’s musical history can and must be transformed by us into a mere genre—a genre that brings us a band like ‘Dengue Fever’ and contains as one of its keys elements the cultural blending of East and West.
Or it may be that the aesthetic value of the film is actually derived from the narrative of an oppressed people thriving in the face of absurd traumatic circumstances, the way, I think, the film wants to present it. This is the underlying testimony of one of the few if not sole non-musician interviewee in the film whose is presented as a music fan. In this view, Cambodian rock derived from french and american influences, is ‘radical’ Cambodian music. Cambodian rock, like other types of rock ‘n roll, is the force liberating the young from the old, global politics from tradition and isolationism. But as a result “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” fails to confront the chains that have come supplant the ones of the Khmer Rouge. These are the ones of a global economy that commodifies its own obscenities.