Inspired by the life story of ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno, who has spent 25 years with the BiAka pygmies of Central Africa, Lavinia Currier’s film aims partly to parallel Sarno’s work: that is, to bring to world-wide attention the wonderful and complex music of the forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers. The BiAka’s music is as rich and well-practised as any other such heritage in the world; possibly even more so, structured around an unusually long 64-beat cycle, and incorporating the natural sounds of the jungle as an integral part of the harmonious, pulsing music.
Currier’s western eyes take care not to privilege her ostensibly central character, Larry, portrayed with gangling affability and quizzically starry eyes by Kris Marshall. A “shot liver” and ear complaint urge his possibly final return to Africa, but occasional reminders of his dwindling mortality lose their power to affect as he remains a somewhat opaque character. Similarly, his objective to record the semi-mythical molimo, the last instrument from the area he has yet to hear, plays more like plot device than characterization.
Larry’s appeal is greatly enhanced by Marshall’s having acquired an easy conversational style in the local language (Akka). Much of this conversation takes place with a trio of old-timers who sit around passing the pipe, and comprising a welcome peanut gallery. The BiAka perform with complete unselfconsciousness; performance it is, playing up in a wonderfully natural way, but Currier captures a great deal that feels authentic about their way of life, and it is to the film’s credit that it never feels intrusive, but rather a joint effort.
More intrusive is the wider picture of the people’s precarious position in their country, effectively ruled over by the Bantu, with their habitat headed rapidly for the belching sawmills. That the foreign wood baron is Chinese might have worked as sharply inevitable rather than cheap, had he been less of a cardboard figure, and Isaach de Bankolé (co-executive producer) relishes playing broad as the dastardly mayor. The opening shots of giant logs being carted away are sobering, but the eco angle is degraded by bargain-basement skullduggery.
The conflict between the BiAka’s traditional way of life and the political and economic concerns of their newly “modern” nation does strike an effective chord in the end however, as they return to their ancient practice, now-outlawed, of elephant-hunting. This is the mayor’s wheeze to get them in trouble, but it’s unsettling to learn that Larry’s old friend Sataka, once the greatest hunter of them all, wants to kill the giant beast not to exercise a primal, suppressed urge, but as a gift to his friend, a chance to bring out the mysterious molimo, traditional to the hunt. It’s a sharp enough ethical conflict that we don’t need Larry to agonize over it, which is just as well, since he is given little chance to do so.
There’s a sense that the wizened, grinning Sataka embodies a deep-rooted, ages-old tradition of lore and spirituality, but this is presented without elucidation. A hallucinatory opening, with Larry in New Jersey, flashing with visions of Africa to literally transportive music, suggests a magic of which the film could well have done with more; it’s reprised only at the end, and less successfully, when the molimo is finally revealed. Brief glimpses are all we get, however; its size apart, it is a relatively uninteresting object (not, apparently, made of ivory as promised) but it is at least played in a delightfully bizarre fashion, evoking a terrific animalism that must surely be a significant part of the forest people’s culture and beliefs.
The sound of the molimo is tremendous, and the music throughout is superb, deftly woven together in places by Chris Berry and presented elsewhere unadorned. But it mostly plays as background. Despite the film’s title, it is not especially concerned with the making or recording of music, of showing off its structures, uses (a couple of brief dances aside), or strangeness. Which is true enough to its general presence in the people’s everyday life, perhaps, but a few interesting-looking instruments are short-changed as they zip by in passing, and if one were drawn to the film for the ethno-musical elements, one too would feel a little short-changed on detail.
It is strange, though far from unwelcome, to see an on-the-ground movie set in Central Africa, heavily featuring non-actors in a region barren of amenities, play out with such an admirably professional gloss. The photography of local flora and fauna, by Conrad Hall’s son Conrad W. Hall, is lovely; Currier and producer James Bruce faced a monumental task first in getting a decent-sized unit of pros to travel out there, and then actually to manage all the shoot-requirements that that entails (whilst dealing with the slipperiness of local politics and economics). There’s nothing inherently wrong with the presentation of these people in the context of a well-worn plot, because it is naturally a conflict of some complexity, and undoubtedly some real-life villainy.
The film is underdone by the division of its attention, however: its elements of story, character, and documentary never quite cohere. The silliness of the bad-guy narrative (it ends up being played for laughs) makes one wish for more of the village and forest life. That aspect of the film avoids tourism (pointedly: a couple of pretentious travelers at the beginning are amusingly skewered) but Currier is disappointingly loath to probe, and details of the culture’s spiritual and musical heritage progress little further than hints. “Oka” means listen, but whatever the Akka word for “look” is, it would have been just as appropriate; for where the film undoubtedly succeeds is in providing a very precious window into a wonderful, secret world, seriously threatened by extinction, and in very comfortably navigating the potentially patronizing pitfalls of filming an Other. Would have liked it to be more about the music, though.
Film’s official website: http://www.okamovie.com/