How many of us have dreamed of leaving the modern world behind? Of course, globalization makes total escape impossible and few go even so far as to buy that fantasy homestead in the country. Song From the Forest is a documentary about a man who went much further, and a journey he takes back to the urban environment after years away.
When he was a young man, Louis Sarno heard the music of the Bayaka pygmies that live in the Congo Basin rainforest. He was so haunted by the sound that he traveled to their village and never left. Sarno recorded over 1,000 hours of audio of their music and village life, but in the process became a genuine member of their community, marrying a local woman and having a son. His son Samedi became gravely ill during his infancy and, while nursing him to health, Louis promised to take him on a trip to his birthplace if he survived.
Song From the Forest is the story of that journey, but it opens with a lengthy immersion in Bayaka village life. We visit with Sarno’s family and community, watch them dance, butcher an animal, warm their feet over smoldering coals during a rainstorm, but mostly play music. The pace is slow, in a way that is luscious for the viewer. We’re immersed in the sounds and colors of the rainforest for much of the film before Louis and Samedi’s journey begins, though we check in with members of his family and college friend Jim Jarmusch back in New York City.
At last, the journey begins and New York City life sweeps up Sarno and 13-year-old Samedi. Samedi, illiterate and lacking English, finds much appealing about the quick, busy urban world while Louis struggles with the many mixed emotions he feels at being in his birthplace. Though Sarno wants his son to choose his own future, the pair fight because the young man can sense the staggering riches around him; his father gives him toys and DVDs to watch when Samedi wants to return bearing useful tools like backpacks or guns.
As Louis aged, he’s transitioned from researcher to adopted Bayaka to caretaker of his village. He tries to keep them safe from poachers and illness, while struggling with his own poverty and ill-health. It’s a touching voyage from jungle to city, a look at the powerful influence of music and of one human’s struggle to find his place among others, far from where he was born.
Song’s Director Michael Obert is most familiar with writing as an author and journalist from Germany with decades of experience in Africa. He heard about a white man living among this rainforest people while researching another story in the Central African Republic. His first encounter with Louis Sarno in 2009 was a dramatic one — he found himself suddenly surrounded by spear-wielding Bayaka in a clearing. They parted to reveal their taller, pale companion. When we met at SXSW he told me a little more about how that encounter led to the film.
Talking with Michael Obert and Producer Alex Tondowski
Michael Obert: This white guy came out of the underbrush, a pygmy baby on each arm, and then he came towards me and he gave the pygmy babies away and he made this gesture, like ‘What the fuck do you want?’ I came unannounced, so I just grabbed his hand. We stood there shaking hands among all the Bayaka. That’s the moment when it clicked. We were standing there, Louis and I, the two white men in the middle of the rain forest of the Congo basin.
And I went hunting for a couple of weeks with them and then we said goodbye. And that was basically it. I didn’t think we would meet again. About five months later I got this email from the Congolese rainforest from Louis Sarno saying, ‘Hi Michael, my mother sent me a ticket. Arrival JFK, you want to hook up?’ He sent this email from a WWF research station where he checks email every other Saturday. So he’s in touch with the world. That’s his outreach to the world.
Kit O’Connell, Firedoglake: And he has a world band radio too, you show that.
MO: Exactly, he has that. So that’s when I met him a second time in the US. I flew to New York, I met him, his mother, his brothers, Jim Jarmusch, his old school friend. Which was a crazy moment, I didn’t know that they were in touch. And Jim Jarmusch is a brother for him, he’s closer than his actual biological brothers. They’re very very close.
So that was it. I came back and wrote my story for a print magazine and that was it basically. It was over for me. And maybe half a year later I met Alex. And maybe you want to tell the story.
Alex Tondowski: Yeah, we met, and Michael told this story he’d just written for a big German magazine which I hadn’t read yet. And he gave it to me and I was fascinated. I said, ‘Michael, this is movie material, come on! Let’s make a film!’ And Michael was like, ‘Film. I don’t make film.’ And I said, ‘Well, you’re gonna make a film now!’
And six months later we were standing in the jungle with 600 kilos of equipment and we shot a movie. That’s the short version. That was three years ago.
FDL: How did the people accept you? How did that work for you? They’d obviously accepted Louis but he’d worked so hard to be a member. How was that for you?
MO: Before we went there, I went there for another month. I have spent a lot of time with indigenous people in this wider area and other parts of the Congo basin. And due to the fact that Louis is integrated already, and Louis seemed to like me, and I liked the Bayaka and so they liked me also I guess. We spent weeks hunting together. We ate the same things. We slept on the floor next to the fire together. I offered help when somebody was injured.
I think we just grew together over the course of this time, and then when I came with the team I was already part of the wider community. They really wanted to give us something. And you can see this in the movie. You don’t have the feeling you’re an invader or an intruder. It’s all very natural and very close. So from the beginning, in all my work as a journalist or a literary writer and now as a filmmaker I try to reduce the gap between me and the people. By just blending in, I want to be on eye level with people. And people feel this. If they accept then they really accept.
So when we came with the team we were just there. Nobody really cared anymore. Nobody looked into the camera. We didn’t have to instruct anybody. Once we had a little community meeting, we just said do whatever you’d do if we were not there and that’s what they all did.
Also, logistically we wouldn’t have been able to shoot this movie in the dense rain forest, humidity and 95 degrees, it’s hot and it rains all the time. You have 650 kilos of technical equipment and tents and stuff so they helped us to move it through the forest. So it’s not only in front of the camera. Behind the camera they were very very helpful. We could not have made this movie without the support of the Bayaka.
AT: Definitely. Just to come back to this tent issue, we decided we really wanted to be with them. Not always come out of the rainforest to sleep in the lodge. We decided that actually we were going to camp. So the camp you see in the film, all these little huts, about 150 meters away we had our camps. And we slept there right in the jungle with the Bayakas and were also part of the community. And I think that’s where you see in the film there’s no separation between us and that’s very helpful of course.
MO: I think also that their culture is slowly degrading or disappearing — there’s a lot of pride that they gain from our interest, in their everyday life, in their music. People would be really surprised — they would say ‘it’s not interesting what we make here. It’s just what we do in the rainforest.’
But to the non-Bayaka Africans that come to this area to log or to hunt or to poach, the Bayaka are considered as nonhumans. They’re something between a monkey and a human being. So you can just basically shoot a Bayaka and talk yourself out or buy yourself out of trouble. So their self-esteem is not very high. The surrounding African communities are a barrier between them and the outside world.
KO: How many are there?
MO: There’s about 1,000 in Louis’ community. So here come these white guys and they’re interested and they want to know the old stories about the creation of the world, and about the music. So that gave them a lot of pride.
AT: It’s interesting to talk about this, let’s call it racism from the Africans, the non-Bayaka. I remember having a conversation with the local mayor, because I was dealing with the local logistics the whole time. And he was telling me, ‘Yeah, we’re trying to make them into humans.’
And I was so — I was startled! I had this moment where I was like ‘You realize what you’re saying? You’re acting the way the Europeans acted toward you when they carted you off as slaves 200 years ago. What are you doing?’ He just looked at me like he had no idea what I was talking about. So it was very interesting to see this inner racism within that construct.
MO: Just to clarify for you, because it’s not shown in the movie, you have the Bayaka community of about 1,000 people. They live in the community you see in the movie on the edge of the rainforest. And then maybe an hour on foot away there is a little town.
AT: A shantytown.
MO: A shantytown where the non-Bayaka Africans live.
FDL: That’s where he talks about going to trade in the movie.
MO: Exactly. They have been attracted by the logging companies or they want to shoot bushmeat or they’re in touch with the Ivory mafia, or they’re just stranded people who ended up living there. So the mayor he’s talking about is the mayor of this place. Because the Bayaka, they don’t have any hierarchies. They have no leaders. They are basically a super-democratic society. Everybody can put his vote in or her vote. Also between men and women, everything is super balanced.
FDL: I noticed that you didn’t make a big deal about that but it comes through in the film.
One of the other things I really liked was there’s this real sense of stillness and the pace of Bayaka life. What did you do to instill that feeling in the viewer? Because it’s startling to transition to city life even though that’s where I live. Can you talk a little about how you created that effect?
MO: That’s just my personal experience from having spent almost 20 years in different parts of Africa. The perception of time is a completely different one. You know time is available all the time. (laughing) Time is available all the time! It’s there. ‘I have no time’ is a ridiculous sentence. Because time is there. It is abundant. It is there always. But it is how you perceive time and what you make out of it or what you think you have to make out of it.
So in Africa, time is an abundant factor. You don’t have to rush anywhere. Nobody puts pressure on you. I don’t want to romanticize life in Africa. It’s bone hard, you know. You have to survive. If you don’t make it, you die. But still, there is time to sit around the fire, time to listen, there’s time to take care of the kids. You don’t have any schedules to follow, hardly anybody has a watch or a clock. That’s what makes life slower. It’s slow. Even the way people walk. Even if it starts to rain, nobody runs.
I didn’t have to try very hard. That’s how life is, that’s how we recorded it. Obviously after you come to New York City, life is fast. There’s a lot of technology, you have cars, traffic, sounds, electronic devices. All that accelerates the speed of your life here. And then Louis and Samedi — they are pushed into this new rhythm and the rhythm just took them away. They didn’t want to or they couldn’t swim against this velocity of life.
Also in the edit afterwards, we left these long shots where you can really be part of a waiting scene, part of doing a basket. Just be part of it. Whereas in the US we felt like we should speed up the edits also. So it’s partly from what we shot and partly from editing.
FDL: I was also reading you have some permanent ties there now. Tell me about the foundation that you’ve started.
AT: As filmmakers, and together with our executive producer, we decided to start the Bayaka Support Project. What that’s there for is to help Louis and his community survive because the tradition is dying, the music is dying, the tribe is under threat. And the way it works is on our website there are instructions on how people can directly support the project. And as a production company, Tondowski Films has also committed that 50% of the proceeds of the film will go directly into supporting the Bayaka and their survival.
MO: These recommendations are based on our friendship with Louis and the Bayaka people. We’ve been involved for four years of very close work and its based on my expertise in particular. I came there as a journalist in 2009 so I have a lot of background information. So we sit together and decide which organization that is active on site is really worth supporting. That can change, maybe next year we may choose somebody else. We don’t consider ourselves an aid organization. We are only three people.
What I can say is the work on the film has massively inspired activities on the ground. World Wildlife Fund is active for almost 30 years now. If they weren’t there the rainforest would be gone, clearly. There would be no rainforest, no animals, no Bayaka left there. But they have never really had a sensible program for the Bayaka. But now with our work they’ve really started to get into it and they have some really interesting programs for the Bayaka now.
FDL: Is there a release date for the film or are you still looking for distribution?
AT: In the US we’re still looking for distribution. In the next few months it will be released starting in Denmark, then Poland and Belgium, and in September it’ll be released in Germany.
FDL: I really hope you find distribution here.
AT: I do too, we’re looking for it!
FDL: Do you have a next project you’re working on?
MO: There’s constant projects but maybe it’s a bit too early to talk about it. But I’m on the hook now as a writer, I’m hooked by film-making and I’ll definitely keep working with Alex.
AT: We will make another film.
Photos courtesy SONG FROM THE FOREST FILM.