Song From the Forest
Half a world away
Song From the Forest, documentary, not rated, in English and Yaka with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
In the mid-1980s, New Jersey-born ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno traveled to the forests of Central Africa to record the music of the Bayaka Pygmy tribe. He found the environment so appealing he decided not to return to the U.S. Over the decades, he ingratiated himself with the tribe, recording more than a thousand hours of music and becoming one of them as best he could, even fathering a child. In 2011, the movie Oka! dramatized his remarkable story. This is the documentary version.
Instead of rehashing the past, German director Michael Obert’s fine film examines the present and future, confounding expectations about what the documentary could and should cover at every turn. The narrative thrust centers around Sarno bringing his young son, Samedi, to New York City for the first time — and Obert uses the opportunity to explore the jungles of Central Africa by comparing them with the concrete jungle of the American city.
He does so without passing judgment on which environment is “better” or more conducive to a fulfilling human life. Instead, he presents the different places with wonderfully composed photography and an objective eye. Side by side, they seem almost color-coded: the forest a lush green and the city — often presented at dusk — a cool blue. We see the people in the tribe hunt and dance, but we also see New Yorkers, including Sarno’s close friend, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, in his minimalist apartment. Both groups of people seem content.
Sarno describes the bustle of city life as a string of errands that have little to do with one’s personal human survival, as opposed to the jungle, where one’s tasks, such as hunting, directly relate to one’s existence. Samedi shows us the DVDs and toys that his father bought him and explains that he can’t return to the tribe with such useless trinkets: He’d prefer to return with a gun for hunting. Obert frames these perspectives and lets us decide what to make of them.
He closes the film with one of many wide shots that leave their meaning up to each viewer. In many respects, Song From the Forest is similar to documentaries like Baraka and Samsara: The wonders of the planet and the divergent daily lives of its habitants are shown in all their glory, with a vague sense that all of this, too, shall pass. Though this is technically a documentary about a musicologist, by its end you may not care that the music was barely touched upon.
Happy together: Louis Sarno and son Samedi