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, they 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. more…