×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Song From the Forest’

American ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno's journey into the Congo (and back) is the subject of this mesmerizing documentary.

With:
Louis Sarno, Samedi Mathurin Bokumbe, Jim Jarmusch, Goma Engel, Steven Sarno, Wanda Boeke, Noel Lobley, Bradley A. Connor. (English, Yaka dialogue)

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.

Film Review: 'Song From the Forest'

Reviewed at Intl. Documentary Festival Amsterdam, Nov. 29, 2013. (Also in SXSW Film Festival; 2013 Thessaloniki Film Festival.) Running time: 96 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Tondowski Films and Friends production, in co-production with ma.ja.de Filmproduktion, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, with the support of Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. (International sales: Deckert Distribution, Leipzig, Germany.) Produced by Alexandre Tondowski, Ira Tondowski.

Crew: Directed, written by Michael Obert. Camera (color, HD), Siri Klug; editor, Wiebke Grundler; sound, Timo Selengia; sound designer, Marian Mentrup.

With: Louis Sarno, Samedi Mathurin Bokumbe, Jim Jarmusch, Goma Engel, Steven Sarno, Wanda Boeke, Noel Lobley, Bradley A. Connor. (English, Yaka dialogue)

More Film

  • John Hodges

    Jax Media Taps A24 Co-Founder John Hodges as Head of New Film Division

    TV production powerhouse Jax Media is expanding into film and tapped John Hodges, one of the founding partners of A24, as its new head of film. “I’m thrilled to be joining the team at Jax,” Hodges said. “Theirs is a potent brand that I’ve admired for a long time, and their reputation as innovative partners [...]

  • Hong Kong's TVB Plans OTT Boost,

    Hong Kong's TVB Plans OTT Boost, Sets 'Court Lady' With Huanyu

    Hong Kong’s Television Broadcasts is set to boost its OTT platforms locally and abroad with new packages and initiatives targeting the Southeast Asian market. The city’s biggest broadcaster has also renewed its partnership with China’s Huanyu Entertainment following the wild success the two enjoyed last year with court rivalry drama “Story of Yanxi Palace.” The [...]

  • Blue Planet II

    Documentaries Show Strong Signs of Growth in Global Markets

    Nearly 40% of exhibitors at FilMart this year are currently involved in documentary films. This year, there are 290 such exhibitors from 26 countries and regions, an increase of 30% from the year before, and 24 nonfiction titles in screening sessions, nearly double last year’s 13 titles. The market launched its “Doc World” section in [...]

  • Palanquin Offers New Business Model for

    Palanquin Offers New Business Model for East-West Productions in SVoD Era

    For Westerners making movies in Asia, logistics can be problematic. And, for Asian filmmakers able to navigate local conditions, screenwriting for international audiences and access to markets can still be stumbling blocks. Veteran producer and executive Guy Louthan (“The Mist,” “Raising Arizona”) is now developing a business that straddles East and West, deploys American production [...]

  • 'The Fall,' 'Out of Crimes' and

    Oriental Intl. Debuts at FilMart With Six New Films and Classic Fare

    Oriental Intl. makes its FilMart sales debut with a line-up of six new titles and a library of 20 arthouse classics and shorts. The firm is the Hong Kong branch of Chinese state-run radio and TV broadcaster CRI-CIBN’s smart TV division. The company has five employees but only one employee based permanently in Hong Kong. [...]

  • Ethnic Minorities in Spotlight at Hong

    Ethnic Minorities in Spotlight at Hong Kong Asian Project Market

    Historically, ethnic minorities around the world have suffered, and 2019 sees no change in this regard. A brace of HAF projects highlight some of the problems faced by them. From Iran, Arsalan Amiri’s horror/black comedy “Zalava” is set in a village terrified by demonic possession, where a young, agnostic police officer arrests challenges local beliefs [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content