Former MC Professor Produces Film on Cambodian Genocide

When John Pirozzi first set out to make “Don’t Think We’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock N’ Roll,” he said he wanted to help tell the story of the 1975 Cambodian Genocide through its own music.

Pirozzi said that the film, which was inspired by his work on a previous film in Cambodia, took ten years to produce. About halfway through filing, Pirozzi said he brought Linda Saphan, Ph.D., to help conduct interviews and translate historical documents.

Saphan used to teach in the history department at Manhattan College, and now teaches at the College of Mount saint Vincent. She was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and fled the country to escape the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist group that conquered and systematically killed the Cambodian people for four years.

“John was looking for someone who could speak English, French and Khmer, whoever wants to do research in Cambodia had to speak French,” she said. “I was an art organizer in Cambodia so that’s how he came in contact with me, and once I got involved in the process, 8-years later I was still involved in the process.”

Photo by Anthony Capote, The Quadrangle

The film focuses on Cambodian popular music leading up to and during the Cambodian genocide. It covers a range of genres, from Sinn Sisamouth, one of the most well-known Cambodian singers, to Baksei Cham Krong, the country’s most well-known rock band.

“The film is really the telling of modern Cambodian history through music,” Pirozzi said. “Music has always been really important to Cambodians so the music has always been a big part of their culture and even a big part of their politics, various politics parties dating back as far as we know have always used music to promote their cause.”

At the start of the documentary, one of the individuals interviewed called music “the soul” of Cambodia. While making the film, Pirozzi faced many obstacles, including a lack of documents, as well as a lack of cooperation on the part of the Cambodian government to discuss the genocide.

“The movie was just one big hurdle after another, I was told by so many people who knew Cambodia well that ‘you won’t find any archival material, that nothing ha survived the war and the genocide,’” he said. “From the beginning that was a bug hurdle, the other bug hurdle was that the people we heard from, the musicians, most of them had died in the Khmer Rouge so we couldn’t talk to them, obviously.”

cambodia article pic
Photo by Anthony Capote, The Quadrangle

In addition to students and faculty, many Cambodian Americans and even some survivors were present at a Mar. 9 screening of the film. Chhaya Chhoum runs a non-profit organization that helps support Cambodian immigrants and genocide survivors adjust to living in the United States. She attended the film along with her family.

“I wasn’t there but I know all the words, that’s because my father grew up in that era,” she said. “I came here in 1985, so it’s funny how memory play and trauma and the legacy that is still continues, even I was saying ‘How do I know all the words.’ Well because my father used to sing them.”

Chhoum’s work centers around helping survivors of the genocide develop a sense of community and support.

“[We are] trying to address the community in the Bronx trying to address the way that our community has been underserved, you know, you get through war and violence and end up in the ghetto of the Bronx,” she said. “We do a lot of arts and cultural work because we understand what is does to the human spirit.”