Like many of us, ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno once heard a song on the radio and was inspired to seek out the people behind such riveting music. Unlike most of us, he pursued that interest to the jungles of Central Africa, and dedicated himself to preserving a peoples’ singular sound before the inevitable pressures of globalization and progress might silence it forever. What makes Louis an especially interesting figure is that he also decided to stay and a make a home deep in those jungles and amongst a people alien to his own. In Song from the Forest, director Michael Obert, documents the manner in which Louis lives his life, and the contradictory pressures that his two homes impress upon him.
Louis lives among the Bayaka, a hunter-gathering people with a strong musical tradition. He has made a life for himself there: he has responsibilities in the community, he has a wife, and he has a son. Louis is accepted, but nonetheless stands apart due to his different appearance, skillset, and values. Song from the Forest is a documentary in the purest meanings of the word, in that it documents Louis’s life but casts no judgement, either on the Bayaka or on the Americans.
Obert chooses to have his film flit between talking heads segments and passive, but revealing, footage of the manner in which Louis and those close to him live their lives. One striking sequence, lasting several minutes shows, without commentary, a man making music in the morning hours just before dawn, while the rest of the village still sleeps. Loudly playing music, no matter how beautiful, before most people have awoken for the day would be considered rude in the United States, but in the jungle where the Bayaka make their home, it adds to the peaceful contemplativeness of the surroundings.
The purported narrative crux of the film is Louis taking his young son, Samedi, to New York to show him the city, visit family, and open his eyes to the possibilities beyond the small village they live in nested deep in the African wilderness. However, the film mirrors Louis’ chosen life in that its true purpose is to stimulate contemplation amongst the disparate beauties of the African rainforest and the skyscrapers of New York City.
The people interviewed for the film are few in their number, but wide in their scope: old friends (including the notable filmmaker Jim Jarmusch), Louis’ Bayakan wife, his colleague digitizing his music recordings, his suburban family-man brother, and his young son. Song from the Forest eschews the typical documentary trappings of narration and a central thesis, instead choosing to let what is happening on the screen speak for itself.
Obert wisely avoids painting Louis has an overly noble figure (he’s a good man, but it’s not necessary for him to be any more saintly than that, and the movie benefits from not glamorizing his work) and respects other people’s more mundane choices as well. Notably, Louis’s brother has a nice house and a couple of kids in a suburban environment, but is filled with nothing but respect for his brother and a desire to understand his life. Meanwhile, it is Louis who discourages his brother’s coming to visit him in the home Louis has chosen for himself.
It is to Obert’s credit that he does not overdraw the parallels between the Bayakan culture and our own. For example, Louis and son Samedi argue about the items that Louis has purchased for his child (Samedi wants a gun); this is much like the “conversation” a typical American parent and child would engage in, except for the fact that Louis and Samedi are arguing in an obscure language spoken by hundreds or thousands, not millions. A follow-up conversation with Samedi cleverly subverts the reasoning behind this tenseness: it does not matter whether or not Samedi likes his toys (he does), he wants to return to the village with items of worth, that raise the quality of life for all.
Obert subtly demonstrates how surface tensions might look similar across various cultures, but still can find its cause in disparities. In this case, it shows the difference in thought patterns amongst those who have grown up in a capitalistic society and an egalitarian one. The film also avoids blindly agreeing with its subject, as it appears that Louis is more torn between the two cultures than he had originally seemed.
The cinematography in Song from the Forest is frequently stunning, and is one of the film’s biggest assets. The opening moments of the film crane the camera upwards in order to show the sunlight streaming through the canopy. There are no people and there is no speaking during this sequence, shots like this provide as good an explanation as any for why Louis fell in love with this interesting corner of the world.
Song from the Forest also hides its ambitions rather well: it centers on the experiences of one man, but it uses that one man to comment on the effect that globalization is having on many indigenous peoples around the globe. This is subtle, but pervasive. Louis comments that forays into the jungle inevitably bring him into contact with poachers. A native man impresses upon Louis the importance of making sure that Samedi receives a Western education. The villagers wear tee-shirts and baseball-hats and use Louis as a means to get Western medicines. It’s a film of comparisons, but goes about it quietly.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Song from the Forest is an enjoyable documentary about Louis Sarno that manages to both paint a vivid picture of the life and motivations of its subject while also taking the time to reflect upon the underlying threats to his chosen way of life. A well photographed film, it resists the temptation to cast judgment on either of the cultures shown while still providing insight into qualities of each. Despite occasional dullness and a rather abrupt ending, Song from the Forest entrances as well as it educates.