Do we need to see atrocities to fully absorb their horror? It’s a question I ask whenever a new video turns up showing a police officer killing an unarmed person. The answer for me is no: I don’t need to see suffering and death to believe they happen. But I know I’m not in the majority. A year ago the photos of Mike Brown’s body lying in the street and video of police gassing participants in the peaceful protests afterward were the catalyst for many to join protests of their own–though a much smaller band of activists had been exposing and protesting police violence, especially that against Black people, for decades.
The same way many police departments want to keep dashboard and body cameras far from their officers, The Pol Pot regime in Cambodia kept cameras–and “outsiders”–out of the country so that their slaughter of their own people (an estimated 3 million, over 25 percent of the population) could escape the notice of much of the rest of the world. Because no archival photos and footage of most of the Pol Pot era exists, films about the Cambodian genocide have had to use creative ways to tell what happened. The Oscar-nominated documentary The Missing Picture from a couple of years ago used clay figurines as a visual complement to the narration. John Pirozzi’s Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten uses the popular music of Cambodia in the ’60s and ’70s (and the artists who made it) to detail the country’s trajectory.[caption id="attachment_23140" align="aligncenter" width="590"] “Mad Men”–and women–in Cambodia.[/caption]
We see a woman with high teased hair in a tight, tight dress singing as couples dance in the early ’60s (a lot of the pristine film footage is from the estate of King Sihanouk, Cambodia’s leader from when it first broke free from French colonial rule in 1955 to 1970), which could be a scene from the early seasons of Mad Men, except the people dancing are all Cambodian and even though they move their bodies like Westerners, their hands move more freely in graceful swooping gestures. The music seems familiar too: the way one of the main male stars Sinn Sisamouth, is posed (always wearing a suit or tux) on his records’ cover art and the type of songs he sang (and his lasting popularity) bring to mind Frank Sinatra–especially his later efforts to seem more relevant by collaborating with younger performers.
Musicians of the time tell us the capital, Phnom Penh “was the hub where bands from the countryside met.” The film spends as much time documenting the careers of women musicians as it does male ones–and the most knowlegable “fan” of the music interviewed (who was a teenager in Phnom Penh when the music was new) is also a woman, which should not be a rarity in films about contemporary, popular music, but is.[caption id="attachment_23139" align="aligncenter" width="590"] The film includes as many women as men in its story.[/caption]
She tells us, “I was not a shy kid. I was like, ‘Just give me the music. I’ll dance.'” She shares with us details about the most popular woman singers of the time that a male fan might have left out. When she talks about the biggest woman star, Ros Serey Sothea she notes that she was a farm girl (her father had abandoned the family and she sang to support her mother and siblings) and that she was “dark-skinned” (which is not always apparent in early cover art for her records).
Like music from the ’60s in Britain and the US we see and hear (the film is chock full of songs from the era) the scene evolve with time, from kicky cocktail and Afro-Cuban style music in the early ’60s to poppy guitar bands with pretty boys in matching suits a few years later. Members of one of the first of these bands tell us they copied the choreographed moves of Cliff Richard and his band in the 1961 British film The Young Ones which we see confirmed as scenes of the Cambodian band’s live performances and scenes of performances in the film are intercut. Later in the ’60s and into the early ’70s we see Cambodian bands adopted more free-form fashions and dancing along with a harder rock sound. We hear a version of Santana’s “Oye Como Va” sung in Khmer that sounds as good if not better than the original.
Some of politics of the time we notice in subtext: early ’60s street footage shows children living in abject poverty: most of the musicians, besides Serey Sothea, were from wealthy families. We also hear explicitly from an American commentator that Cambodia was not a democracy and see Sihanouk, during an interview, coolly defend his execution of communists. But he apparently didn’t kill enough of them to satisfy the American government’s tastes (the US was fighting Communists just over the border in Vietnam) and Sihanouk was overthrown in a military coup, the leadership of which openly allied itself with the US (Sihanouk had declared Cambodia “neutral” in the Cold War). During this time the US relentlessly bombed Cambodia in a badly thought-out effort to destroy Communist strongholds: instead the bombing (which killed an estimated one million people) galvanized most of the people in the countryside to join the anti-Western communists, The Khmer Rouge (and Sihanouk in exile had, in desperation, allied himself with them too, in hopes of returning to power).[caption id="attachment_23141" align="aligncenter" width="590"] Ros Serey Sothea and Sinn Sisamouth,[/caption]
The military leadership used singers Sisamouth and Serey Sothea in propaganda (we see Serey Sothea in military fatigues parachuting from a plane) but their popularity couldn’t counteract the devastation the bombing brought. Phnom Penh, the last holdout against Communists was eventually “liberated” by The Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot. At first, the residents, including musicians, celebrated. But as a surviving member of the royal family tells us (in translated French) “If you want to eliminate values from past societies you have to eliminate the artists, because artists are influential.” The Western-influenced capital was evacuated and everyone who had lived there, including musicians, were put to work in rice fields and other manual labor in the countryside, much as we see the “decadent” gay men of Fidel Castro’s 1960s Cuba were put to work in the sugar cane fields in Before Night Falls.
I was hoping the film would employ a similar technique to How To Survive a Plague and show us musicians who survived the genocide but whom we had not yet seen in contemporary interviews. But the vast majority of musicians we come to know in the film (and sometimes even their children) were either killed for not following orders, for being affiliated with the previous government or for simply being a “bad” (counter-revolutionary) influence. Some, though they succeeded in escaping detection, died of starvation. One woman, whom we see dancing wildly and joyfully onstage as a member of a popular late ’60s band cries as she tells us that during Pol Pot’s reign when anyone asked about her past in the city, “I told them I was a banana seller… I lied to them. That saved my life.”
The musicians who survived thought they would be killed too, but when Vietnamese forces invaded the country in 1979, the genocide stopped. But because no records were kept, no one knows how most of those killed, including the most famous musicians, died or where their bodies are buried. Now not just the surviving musicians but the fans–as well as those of us in the audience–hear something deeper and more resonant than nostalgia in the music that came before Pol Pot (and which was banned under his regime). As the dedicated Phnom Penh fan tells us, when she and others worked the rice fields and no Khmer Rouge official could hear them, “We would sing.”
Ren Jender is a queer writer-performer/producer putting a film together. Her writing, besides appearing every week on Bitch Flicks, has also been published in The Toast, RH Reality Check, xoJane and the Feminist Wire. You can follow her on Twitter @renjender