Under most circumstances devoting ten years to the making of a single film would indicate either perfectionism run amok, Hamlet-like indecisiveness, severely outsized ambition or some combination of the three. In the case of Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten; Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll, director John Pirozzi’s decade of work reflects the painstaking search for interview subjects, the arduous uncovering of material and admirable patience in bringing this historical narrative into complete focus.
In other words, Pirozzi gets it right, and he does so by interweaving three major elements in the story: a history of Cambodian music post-WWII, the diverse backgrounds of those who made it and the changing social and political landscape as the country headed toward tragedy. These twined topics unfurl in a roughly linear chronology, allowing for easy absorption of the music’s stylistic growth from traditional foundations through the impact of French and Afro-Cuban sources, Sinatra-esque balladry, surf-rock, Cliff Richard, discotheque movers, Beatles and Stones, psychedelia, Santana, soul and James Taylor.
Along the way, Pirozzi interjects the socio-political realities incrementally as they coincide with the artistic progressions, the film maintaining a steady flow, an impressive feat given the wealth of information that unfolds. Indeed, other movies offering this much detail might risk accusations of obsessiveness, but here the maneuver assists in deepening the humanity and underscoring the richness of Cambodian culture.
Needless to say, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is chock full of songs, most of them augmented with lyrical subtitles. It’s a gesture simultaneously reinforcing the specificity and universality of the culture, motifs further enhanced by the judicious use of reenactments, a tactic meshing surprisingly well with the trove of period footage.
Over the last few decades the documentary medium has become considerably more sophisticated, producing both films of significant complexity and fancy-pants approximations of same. This circumstance has occasionally inspired blanket assessments regarding the worthiness of long-established non-fiction techniques; just last week I stumbled across a review (of another movie) that carelessly posited the method of the “talking-head” as an unpardonable cliché and “boring” to boot.
Well balderdash to that. Pirozzi’s film reaches its greatest emotional intensity through the straightforward approach of the interview. Rather than striving to manufacture a response, the movie inspires it naturally by simply capturing sincere testimony. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is colorful but not flashy, modestly scaled but assured in execution and is even uplifting near the end via glimpses of thriving contemporary Cambodia. However, its strongest attributes are respect and passion magnified through tireless dedication.