If movies were subject to sanity tests, “Oka!” would be a crazy old man with a three-day beard and a sock full of kruggerrands under his mattress. Suggestive of Monty Python, evocative of Scots novelist William Boyd (“A Good Man in Africa”) and generally disdainful of modern stereotypes and patriarchal white-man-on-the dark-continent stories, Lavinia Currier’s film has the kind of freewheeling sensibility and contempt for conformity that could give it theatrical traction — even if, as regards just about anything in the specialty arena, the current climate seems particularly hostile.
It might even be as hostile as the environment Larry Whitman (Kris Marshall) finds himself in. Inspired by the real-life Louis Sarno (adapting his memoir with Currier and Suzanne Stroh), Larry is an ethnomusicologist who has been recording and preserving the music of the Bayaka pygmies of Yandombe, in the Central African Republic, and is returning home to New Jersey to raise funds. When his acerbic doctor (Peter Riegert) tells him he’s dying, he opts not to wait for a liver transplant and instead presses a wealthy patron to finance another trip to Africa, so he can finish his work on the Bayaka.
Larry finds a new world evolving in Yandombe. He’s still the tallest, whitest guy around, but the Bayaka have been getting a hard time from the Bantu, whose mayor, Bassoun (Isaach de Bankole), has moved the pygmies into a smaller village and forbidden them from entering their sacred forest. Bassoun is hoping to sell the timber rights to a predatory Chinese businessman, Mr. Yi (Will Yun Lee).
The encroachment of the modern on the ancient is a major theme, both narratively and visually, in “Oka!” (the Bayaka word for “listen”), and preservation is Currier’s obvious message here. But Larry is less of a savior than a stand-in for the audience; he towers comically over the pygmies, who all make affectionate fun of him. One of the more mischievous locals is Sataka (Mapumba), the tribe’s great hunter, who, with his wife, Ekadi (Essanje), has gone back into the jungle to escape the capricious rule of law.
What’s refreshing about “Oka!” is its aversion to any kind of cliches; the Bayaka people exhibit as much self-interest as anyone, they use Larry for all he’s worth, and they have their decidedly craven side. Sataka’s granddaughter, Makombe (Mbombi), on whom Larry develops a crush, plays him like a fish. Still, the Bayaka are the victims here: Bassoun wants to frame Sataka for an elephant killing and accuse the pygmies of poaching, which will enable him to move the Bayaka permanently out, and Mr. Yi in.
While Larry is a hero, he’s only one of several, just as the film is only partly a farcical dramedy about endangered people. It’s also a nature film, the wildlife of the Central African Republic playing a prominent role in the visual storytelling, and Currier eschews the lions and tigers and bears for far more hideous and fascinating varieties of African wildlife. But virtually all the species seen in “Oka!” are given a fresh going over, including homo sapiens.
Production values are generally good, d.p. Conrad W. Hall’s work exceptional in capturing the character of Africa.