COURTESY IT'S ALIVE MEDIA
Cambodian-born singer Chhom Nimol and her band, Dengue Fever, are featured in a new documentary.
Movie depicts Americans’ role in reviving Cambodian music
Among the many offerings at the Hawaii International Film Festival will be an unusual film about a Southern California band that performs Cambodian folk and pop music -- in the native Khmer language. Aside from the lead singer, none of the musicians is Cambodian.
It took this band of mostly outsiders, touring Cambodia in 2005, to ignite interest in a type of music that had died out during the Pol Pot regime. "Sleepwalking Through the Mekong," filmed on that trip, is a fascinating journey about bringing a Southeast Asian country's music back to its people.
STORY SUMMARY »
FULL STORY »
"Sleepwalking Through the Mekong"
Part of the festival's Asian Showcase, 6:15 p.m. Friday at Dole Cannery multiplex
Who would've thought it would take a small group of American visitors -- plus one immigrant returning to her native land -- to remind a people of their own rich cultural past, one nearly decimated by war?
It all started when Los Angeles brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman became enamored by 1960s Cambodian folk and pop music. "We thought, wouldn't it be great to put a band together that sounds like this?" he said by phone Thursday. "I originally heard the music when I was traveling in Cambodia in 1997 and '98, listening to these cassette tapes of stars like Sim Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea."
Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival
» Dates: Thursday through Oct. 28
» Venues: Dole Cannery Stadium 18 and the Hawaii Theatre
» Tickets: Dole events are $10; $9 military, students and seniors. Hawaii Theatre events are $15; $12 military, students and seniors.
» Call: 528-3456 or visit www.hiff.org
» Program guides: Available at the festival information table at the Dole multiplex and across the street at the HIFF office
But when the Khmer Rouge and dictator Pol Pot took over in 1975, most of the keepers of the country's culture were murdered. Those surviving after 1980 fled, with a sizable population ending up in southern California, specifically Long Beach.
There, the Holtzmans found the person who gave legitimacy to their band, whimsically called Dengue Fever: Chhom Nimol, who was considered a fine singer before she left for the United States. (With two previous albums, and a new one, "Venus on Earth," due for release next year, Nimol and the band still sing in her native Khmer.)
In 2005, five years after the band's formation, Dengue Fever traveled to Cambodia, their trip documented by John Pirozzi, who has directed their music videos and was the cinematographer for the Matt Dillon film "City of Ghosts" -- which included on its soundtrack the band's Khmer-language cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now."
The resulting "Sleepwalking Through the Mekong" is a fascinating journey that basically brings a Southeast Asian country's music back to its people.
"Whether you already know our music or not," Holtzman said, "I like how John used our appearance on a variety show on Cambodian television at the beginning of the movie, where we nervously introduce ourselves to the audience in this hot studio. And I like how the documentary doesn't use a narrator, letting the viewers themselves get the gist of what we were doing there."
Not only do we see the band play in different settings -- from a small club in Phnom Penh to a large outdoor stage in a rural shantytown -- we also see them record with master traditional musicians, as well as delighted children from a cultural performance school.
"It was nice to perform with the kids," Holtzman said. "What they did, the singing and dancing, blew our minds. To see them in their little practice room, with paint peeling off the wall, doing this raw, beautiful music, it touched us all."
It was a rewarding experience, both during and after.
"The Cambodian people tend to be reserved, but we could tell they liked what we were doing, especially if we did some of the old songs. They would come up afterward and tell us how important it was that we were helping keep their music alive. And I noticed that when we played in Phnom Penh, we had a good mix of expats and Khmers come out to see us, who tend to stay separate of each other.
"And the immigrants who came out and saw the documentary in Los Angeles later were very supportive and really loved it," Holtzman said. "I hope we can get back to Cambodia sometime in the future."