Song From The Forest


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Song From The Forest
"Siri Klug's cinematography perfectly captures the lush complexity of the forest."

25 years ago, ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno heard a song that spoke to him so strongly that he travelled all the way from the US to the Central African Republic to discover its origins. Deep in the rainforest he met the Bayaka people, listened to their music, learned how they lived, and fell so deeply in love with it all that he never left. Accepted into the tribe, he married and had a son, Samedi. Now Samedi is 13 years old and Louis, broke and in failing health, is preparing to take him on a trip to New York to learn about the wider world.

Bridging two ostensibly very different worlds, Michael Obert's impressive debut genuinely challenges expectations as it shows us an American by birth who is lost and lonely in his country of origin alongside a boy whose deep practicality seems adequate to prepare him for anything. The film is unusual in giving ample space to the Bayaki to share their own thoughts directly, and not just on matters of tradition, fascinating thought these are. Rather than the usual well intentioned but romantic perspective, we get a stark picture of day to day life in the forest with all its ups and downs and, crucially, its ordinariness. The children share their thought on the excitement of flying over the ocean, which is described as "very big," "dangerous" and "not for kids," but ultimately Samedi is ready to take things in his stride. Luis fits easily into the community, even though his role has changed over the years. More difficult for him - and seemingly something he's less aware of - is the gap forming between him and his son as the boy grows up. Other Africans urge him to get Samedi an education that will broaden his prospects. Louis struggles with his awareness that the forest-dwelling way of life may die. Samedi wants to acquire practical gifts to take home with him, but doesn't understand the financial obstacles his father faces.

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Framed by insights from other Bayaki villagers and from Luis' best friend back home, Jim Jarmusch, the film is also shaped by its soundtrack, a mixture of the songs that Louis has recorded over the years and newly captured songs in the forest. One man sings about his wife wanting him to fetch honey from a tree and how unfair this is when he has backache and bees are stinging him. Another asks God why he feels so sad all the time - the blues seem to be universal. A woman tells the story, in poetic form, of a man who died and was restored to life with the help of his friend, but whose skin turned white in the process. Louis is alright, the villagers say. He can't help being white.

Siri Klug's cinematography perfectly captures the lush complexity of the forest. Drifting clouds of smoke, hammering rain, wet leaves and mud saturate the screen, so rich one an almost smell them, whilst New York is cold but gleaming, pale grey in contrast to the browns and greens, its interiors shot as if for a catalogue. All the hard edges of the big apple contrast with nature's curves and irregularities. Samedi tries to squeeze between a sofa and a chair, seemingly perplexed by their unyieldingness; it's little hint of how alien this place is, even as he adapts.

Combining a portrait of a people with portraits of two human beings, Song From The Forest has a lot more going on than most films of its type. It will thrill adventurous music fans and many other viewers will find it intriguing. For Louis, being in the forest is about being closer to life.

Reviewed on: 28 Mar 2015
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Documentary about an American musicologist’s life among the Bayaka pygmies.

Director: Michael Obert

Writer: Michael Obert

Year: 2013

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Germany, US, Central African Republic


London 2014

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