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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Oct. 28, 2011 | 9:20 AM

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For better or worse (usually worse), when Hollywood movies deign to turn their eyes towards indigenous cultures, the story is usually told through the eyes of a white protagonist.  Independent films can sometimes be more adventurous, but this combination can still result in the reduction of complex societies to clumsy plot devices.  OKA!(meaning, Listen), a new narrative feature from director Lavinia Currier mostly avoids this trap by putting the native culture of the Bayaka Pygmies front and center.  It has a few other minor problems, but overall the film succeeds in rendering an intriguing and exuberant look at the struggles of an ancient culture to adapt to the modernization of Africa.

Based on the memoir by Louis Sarno, an ethnomusicologist who lived among the Bayaka pygmies in Central Africa for 25 years, the film begins as Sarno (Larry in the film version) is about to return to Africa against the orders of his doctor (Peter Riegert).  Suffering from both liver failure and tinnitus (ringing in the ear), he nonetheless is determined to return to the Bayaka in order to document the sound of the Molimo, a mythical Pygmy horn few have ever seen or heard.

OKA! gains momentum quickly once the scene shifts from New York to Africa.  As Larry (Kris Marshall)  travels by bus to the Bayaka village, director Currier subtly pokes fun at the idea of tribal tourism.  During a pit stop, Larry encounters two Brits who blithely proclaim their intent to visit every emerging primitive tribal group on the globe.  At first intrigued by his mention of the Bayaka tribe, they quickly lose interest when Larry’s description of the group mistakenly leads them to believe that the Pygmies have mobile phones.

The village hasn’t started constructing cellular towers yet, but Larry soon encounters other disturbing changes since his last visit.  Most jarring is the presence of a saw mill which has had the effect of transplanting the Bayaka from the forest to the village.  Additional resistance is brought by a despotic Mayor (an excellent Isaach De Bankole), who’s determined to see modernization come to Africa, and who never misses a chance to remind the pygmies that his term is “for life.”  In the most generic aspect of the plot, a mysterious but somehow nefarious Chinese businessman (Will Yun Lee) has arrived in the village to further exploit the Pygmy habitat.

The set up of Man vs. Nature is one that we’ve seen many times before, but Currier and her fellow screenwriters Sarno and Suzanne Stroh manage to deftly weave the story elements together into an unexpected but satisfying conclusion. 

Much of OKA! was shot in and around an African forest preserve, and both the wildlife and landscapes on display are breathtaking to behold. The cinematography is by Conrad W. Hall, who brings the forest in OKA! to life and offers striking evidence that there may be a photography gene. (Hall is the son of 3 time Oscar winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall).

The true stars of OKA!, of course, are the Bayaka.  Currier’s direction is unobtrusive, with the result that we are given a rare glimpse of a disappearing group in their natural habitat.  Much of the music in the film is from Sarno’s original source recordings of the tribe.  As the music plays over the closing credits, it becomes a lot easier to understand how Sarno couldn’t stop listening to it for a quarter century.

OKA! opens Friday, October 28th at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.  In French, English, Bantu, and Sango with English subtitles.

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