It's hard to explain to Americans the importance of Sinn Sisamouth, the most prolific singer-songwriter in Cambodian history, who was killed sometime in 1975 by the brutal Khmer Rouge. His silky vocals and poetic verses spent more than 20 years wafting over the cities and countryside of Southeast Asia's oldest kingdom, touching people's emotions and heralding a vibrant Golden era of rock and psychedelic-infused music that is only now beginning to be rebuilt.
He's commonly referred to as the Cambodian Elvis, which explains his popularity level. It also sheds light on how, decades after his last recording was made, both young and old Cambodians can still cite and sing his works, often with tears in their eyes.
"When you're in Cambodia, most people will refer to him like that–as Elvis. His music seems to be a connection piece for Khmers worldwide to their country and that's a strong thread," says Chris Parkhurst, a non-Khmer documentarian currently making a film about Sinn Sisamouth called Elvis of Cambodia. "But maybe Bob Dylan would be a more appropriate icon, Parkhurst suggests. "Imagine if Bob Dylan at the height of success was killed by the government. How would that feel for the people? Sinn Sisamouth is and remains a cultural icon of great magnitude."
Elvis of Cambodia will, for the first time ever, shed light on this massively important and yet elusive character–his life before celebrity status, his family history and the legacy that his music continues to foster–using the limited archival footage, interviews with contemporary musicians and intimate moments snapped with Sisamouth's surviving family members, as well as feature film scenes based on abandoned screenplay about his life.
Originally, the Portland-based videographer and his producer wife traveled to Cambodia on their own dime to capture footage in an attempt to make a brief biographical piece about the singer, who Parkhurst discovered while filming a documentary about unexploded bombs left buried in the country during the Vietnam War.
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"When we initially set out to do this film, it was going to be an experimental film, a shorter piece, but then it just became quickly apparent that there was no way were going to be able to do this justice telling his story in a short piece," Parkhurst says. "I should have known better."
Since returning last year, the filmmaker has been planning his attack on the larger, more ambitious project. He's spent the last three weeks in Long Beach, where the largest population of Cambodians in America lives, shooting at the first-ever Cambodian Music Festival and gathering stories from first-generation residents here.
But Parkhurst still needs more funds so he can go back to Cambodia to shoot the crucial footage that will bring the film to its final vision. Already, the project has received a regional arts council grant and a Kickstarter campaign is seeking to earn the remaining $20,000 from those who believe in the power of Sinn Sisamuth's music.
A fundraiser event featuring local Khmer artists will be held this Saturday night at the Library Coffeehouse from 7-10 p.m., with young poets, singers and rappers speaking about the impact Sinn Sisamouth has had on their life and their art. Organized by local spoken word poet Shawn Chan, it's an opportunity to see the Elvis of Cambodia's legacy in real time, from the mouth of those who are leading their lives in honor of the spirit of Sinn Sisamouth and music.
"My generation is the last one with a connection to our home country. We're a dying breed and it's up to us to make sure that the younger generation remembers him," says Chan, who was born in a Cambodian concentration camp the year Sinn Sisamouth died. "Maybe the kids don't understand the Elvis reference, so I tell them, 'Well, then he's your Tupac. He's your parent's Tupac, too, and they both got shot. Except one died in a real war."
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.