Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Oka!" takes a musicologist from the sickbed into the wild

The film “Oka! Amerikee”, directed by Lavinia Currier and written in part by real-life ethno-musicologist Louis Sarno, comes across as creating a sub-genre.  That is, science fiction or fantasy, placing the protagonist and moviegoer in another world, almost that of another planet, while needing nothing supernatural (with a caveat about the ending, and maybe about his reception of a "message" in his sickbed, below).  The film is part “Avatar”, part “Lost”, part “Terra Nova”, and part “Lord of the Flies”, with a touch of “Into the Wild” and “Cast Away”, maybe even “Dances with Wolves”.

The word means “listen” in Akka (or Aka), the basis of the language of the Bayaka Pygmies, of Central Africa.  Most of this film was shot on location in the Central African Republic, north of the Congo. There are some references to the Bantu and the serious tribal problems covered in other films.

The film invents a fictional character, Larry Whitman, played by Kris Marshall (“Love Actually”).  As the film starts, his doctor warns him he needs a liver transplant and should not travel.  He also has tinnitus and fears danger of going deaf  (like Beethoven), ruining his life as a musician.  He wants to document one more musical idiom in Central Africa, that of the Bayaka.  He goes anyway.  Having plenty of energy and ability to live in the wild while lugging high-tech gear, he doesn’t really have many obvious medical problems (until almost the end),  and he looks pretty good physically (just not perfect).   The film does make him look like a giant compared to the natives (as if out of “Gulliver’s Travels”).  He’s able to make the native people like him and communicate with them in their language and value set.  He (probably knowing this before he left home) runs into the political aspirations of the “mayor” (Isaach de Bankole) and a logging developer (Will Yun Lee), prepared to deforest the area to do business with the Chinese.  The mayor has a political front, to stop the pygmies from hunting and eating elephants, which we know are very intelligent animals deserving of respect. (At this point, I should also refer to the CBS “60 Minutes Presents”, reviewed on the TV blog Jan. 23, which had a segment [also called “Into the Wild”] on elephants as well as wildlife migrations in this general area.)  

The mayor demands that Larry bring in his equipment for bureaucratic approval (“we are now a modern country” – laugh) and claims that Larry needs copyright approval to record wildlife and native music.  That’s an ironic point, given the current political battles in the US now over copyright infringement (like SOPA and Protect-IP), but this takes copyright to absurdity.

As the movie unfolds, the music works its way into the story. The music tends to comprise chants, and two-or-three note motives played on primitive woodwinds or percussion, often counterpointed and danced to. As the people chant and dance, they come alive spiritually. This is not music that emphasizes development or personalization of emotion the way European classical music (since Bach, or at least since Mozart or Beethoven) does.  Instead, it is more like a ritual experience, like hymn singing (the same verses over and over) among Evangelical Christians.  As the film progress toward a penultimate climax with the elephant hunt, another crude and very large woodwind is introduced (“The Bayaka”) and the sound has a mesmerizing effect.  The music has taken over and driven the plot.

At the end, a medicine man has to tend to Larry.  There is an “Inception-like” sequence that the viewer must interpret for himself.  I don’t know whether Sarno really did have these medical issues in real fact. (If a viewer does, please comment.)  I like the possible interpretation that local medicine healed him (just as I once witnessed a healing at MCC Dallas in 1979 and maybe another one at an AOG in Florida in 1998). If so, I can think of small directorial changes (or images) that could have made that point stronger.

Interesting also is the “living off the land” – the quick building of tree-component huts as if they were tents, covered by huge leaves.   How many of us could build these things with our own hands?

The film was edited and processed in the US; I would have expected France (as the film is mostly in French and in Akka with subtitles).  The production companies are James Bruce and Roland, and the distributor is a small, obscure one, Dada.  I don’t see that it was in the festival circuit; it should have been, where it might have gotten a major corporate distributor and been in the running for Oscars or Golden Globes.  This is a film that could have used Imax and 3-D, although it’s hard to imagine attracting the necessary investor money for such a big project on this obscure but (morally) important story.

The movie site is here

I saw the film at the West End Cinema in Washington DC late Thursday afternoon in front of a fair crowd given weekday time slot.

I did rent “Lord of the Flies” around 2004, and was left with the impression that Getty’s character was hardly much of a leader, just too young. As a substitute teacher, I ran into this novel a lot .

I saw “Dances with Wolves” in 1990 when it came out, and remember the trials of Kevin Costner’s character. I saw “Cast Away” in 2000, and remember Tom Hanks and the volleyball playmate Wilson.

Wikipedia attribution link for map of Pygmy peoples in Africa.  

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