Having left his native New Jersey long behind, Louis Sarno has dedicated the better part of his life to documenting one of the rarest and most remote musical traditions on earth — that of the Central African Republic’s Bayaka pygmies. In “Song From the Forest,” German director Michael Obert displays only passing interest in this music, offering instead a mesmerizing glimpse into Sarno’s search for a sub-Saharan Walden and the implications of that choice. Best suited to NPR-listening, New Yorker-skimming culture-philes, this loosely structured but intricately sound-designed docu serves as a fest-friendly follow-up to both Sarno’s little-read autobiography and “Oka!,” the even-less-seen fish-out-of-water dramedy inspired by his story.
A travel journalist who has been repeatedly drawn to far-flung subjects, Obert once dedicated seven months to exploring the Niger River, reporting on a side of Africa tourists seldom see. In selecting Sarno as the focus of his debut feature, the first-time director has clearly found a kindred spirit, contrasting the impulse that lured this American ethnomusicologist halfway around the world with a fresh set of emotions unearthed as he agrees to bring his pygmy son Samedi (who speaks no English) back “home” to the U.S.
After nearly 30 years in the Congo River Basin, during which he recorded more than 1,000 hours of Bayakan singing, Sarno has put aside his equipment and settled in among the pygmies who had once been his subjects. Though he has lived among these natives for several generations, speaks the language and even married a local woman (now separated), Sarno’s adoptive community still views him as a benefactor/medicine man — a role he struggles to reconcile with the fact that his pursuits earn barely enough to sustain him.
There may be trouble in paradise, but the docu downplays it. Rather than hinging on some form of conflict, “Song From the Forest” is defined by a sense of inner peace, opening with an almost transcendental immersion in Sarno’s personal sanctuary. In darkness, a natural symphony of insects sets the tone, accompanied by a swelling chorus of human voices as images of sunlight piercing the canopy of a still-primeval rainforest fill the screen. Surprisingly, the chanting isn’t African, but classically European (hailing from William Byrd’s “Mass for Four Voices,” to be exact) — the first aural liberty in a film that superimposes the sounds of “civilization” over time spent among the Bayaka and tropical ambiance during a return trip to New York.
It’s unclear whether Obert assumes audiences are already familiar with Sarno’s story or simply doesn’t care to repeat it. For context, he relies on testimony from Sarno’s close friends back in the States, including his fully Westernized brother (seen driving through the suburbs and practicing his golf putt during interviews), a monotonous personal shaman and longtime buddy Jim Jarmusch (whose involvement may boost U.S. interest in the pic) — a curious case of a docu shoot in which a trip to New York feels more exotic than the surrounding rainforest-set footage, which is presented as “life as usual.”
In the film’s strange, sideways way, it’s not until halfway through that this idea of the voyage back to America arises, and yet, the trip ultimately comes to define the film. Sarno explains how several years earlier, his son nearly died, and at that time, he promised Samedi that he would one day show him the world he left behind — one whose material pleasures and personal opportunities seem every bit as appealing to the 13-year-old as they seem misplaced to his father (resulting in the pic’s most conventional yet engaging stretch, including a priceless conversation about what it takes to woo a white woman).
Sarno is an anomaly among men, someone dedicated to preserving a cultural tradition the descendants of which would gladly trade it all for First World comforts. Despite leaving large gaps in Sarno’s tale, the film provides poignant access to his mindset — especially poignant during an early sequence, when the ecstatic combination of forest imagery and 16th-century chanting abruptly cuts to a silent image of him gazing out the window of a Gotham apartment. The moment feels as heartbreaking as those news reports of Ming, the tiger who spent years chained to a radiator in Harlem. The jungle calls, and during the short spell Obert pulls us away from our busy lives, we too can hear its song.