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‘Oka!’: Among The Pygmies, A Jersey Boy At A Loss

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 13, 2011

Loosely based on the career of American ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno, Oka! includes real scenes of life among the fabled Bayaka pygmy people, plus scenery and wildlife from the Central African Republic. Yet the movie is no National Geographic exercise — it employs its documentary footage in the service of satire and magical realism. Director Lavinia Currier (who scripted with Suzanne Stroh and Sarno) lampoons Bayaka culture, the strutting local mayor, even her well-meaning protagonist, who is totally incompetent as a jungle dweller.

The story opens in New Jersey, where Larry Whitman (Kris Marshall) is trying to market his recordings of Bayaka music, whose complicated polyphonic wonders seem lost on the locals. His liver was ruined by his first African sojourn, and he’s waiting for a transplant. Regardless of what happens, his doctor (Peter Reigert) warns him that he can never return to Africa.

But Larry, dubbed “Big Ear” by the Bayaka, has started to hear things — ominous things. The Bayaka’s spiritual leader, Sataka (Mapumba), is summoning him with the sounds of the forest, which now include the deafening roar of trucks dispatched by a Chinese-owned logging business.

So Larry rushes back to the Bayaka, bearing gifts — matches, flashlights, bras — and his recording equipment. He learns that Sataka has fled into the forest, and that “mayor for life” Bassoun (Jim Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankole) is trying to displace the Bayaka in order to expedite a jungle-clearing operation led by Yi (Will Yun Lee). The Chinese executive is a modern technocrat, and yet still a little spooked by the Bayaka’s insistence that a dragon lives in the deepest of the forest.

The officious Bassoun, one of the Bantu who have long oppressed the Bayaka, tries to curtail Larry’s activities with new regulations. “We are in the process of systematizing our pygmies,” he announces. He also attempts to trick Sataka into killing an elephant, so he can have the Bayaka removed from the forest as a threat to the tourist-drawing local fauna.

Meanwhile, Larry’s head is turned by a young Bayaka woman, who suggests she might marry him if he can learn how to survive in the jungle. Big Ears takes the challenge, but he can’t hunt, track or tell a poisonous mushroom from an edible one. Much of the time, he can’t even stand upright.

Using aerial photography for some establishing shots, Oka! provides a vivid sense of the life and landscape that draw Larry back to the Bayaka’s homeland. It also includes much music and dance, and shows how they’re integral to Bayaka daily life. (When an interloper plays outsider tunes on a boombox, a Bayaka elder quickly dispatches the device with a spear.)

The movie is too playful to qualify as an ethnographic study, and it doesn’t offer any practical solutions to the conflict between development and indigenous culture. (Summoning a dragon doesn’t count.) Currier prefers a more lyrical approach to mankind’s connection to the wild; in one of her previous films, A Passion in the Desert, a soldier lost in the Egyptian outback develops an erotic link with the leopard who’s following him.

With its culture-clash humor and outright slapstick, this movie is substantially less poetic than that predecessor. It’s also more human. Rather than idealize life in a state of nature, Oka! depicts Bayaka culture as messy and not always admirable, but exuberantly vital. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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