In North America, the coming of Europeans spelled the end of the traditional lifestyle for those already living here. It didn’t matter whether people had been hunter-gatherers or agricultural, what they had known before was taken away from them. The former saw the territories required to sustain them seized, and their food supply either deliberately exterminated (the American buffalo) or greatly eroded by encroaching civilization. In the case of the latter it was usually a case of being forcibly removed from arable land to make way for European settlers, and moved to areas unsuitable for the crops they were used to growing.
European colonialists employed similar policies the world over as their influence spread. However, there were certain parts of the world where the native climate was so hostile that even the hardiest of settlers wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to make a go of “taming” the land.
Until late in the 20th Century, people indigenous to places like the Saharan desert, the far north and the jungles of Africa and South America were able to carry on living much as they had for centuries. Unfortunately that began changing as “civilization’s” greed for natural resources has meant that no area of the world is safe from exploitation any longer no matter how supposedly inhospitable it may once have been considered.
Once considered impenetrable and forbidding, the jungles of Africa have only recently begun to feel the pinch of progress and development. The people of Central and West African nations are now seeing their lands torn apart by mining for materials used in cell phone manufacture, as well as other precious metals. The forests themselves are one of the last great sources of lumber, and improving technology has finally allowed companies access to the great trees that have stood for centuries.
Naturally, those most affected by these encroachments are those least able to defend themselves. In the Central African Republic it’s the pygmy Bayaka people in the province of Yandombe who are most at risk. Pygmies, treated as second class citizens by the other tribes, have long lived as hunter gatherers deep within the forests.
The new movie Oka shows how depriving them of their traditional way of life has begun the process of marginalizing this people, as has happened to so many others the world over. Told through the eyes of an ethnomusicologist, Larry Whitman (played by the wonderful Kris Marshall), and based on the experiences of real life ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno who has lived with them for 25 years., the movie depicts the Bayaka’s circumstances with both intelligence and humour.
Writer director Lavina Currier has created both a portrait of an individual’s personal journey, as we follow Whitman from New Jersey at the beginning of the movie to Central Africa, and what happens to a people when they are forced to relinquish the way of life which has defined them for generations. Too often movies of this either sentimentalize their subjects and make them out to be something they aren’t, or, conversely, become a forum for some sort of new-age bullshit about the spirituality of living in harmony with nature which comes across like so much “noble savage” garbage.
Thankfully Currier avoids any of those temptations and allows her cameras to speak for themselves and lets us reach our own decisions about events as they unfold. Even better is the fact that Whitman is never once shown to be their saviour. He doesn’t come ridding into the jungle on his white charger and lead the poor ignorant native peoples to victory over his evil compatriots.
Whitman has made its his life’s work to record the sounds of the Bayaka’s lives, including the music they create and the sounds of the world they live in. However there is still one sound he’s been unable to capture on tape, that is the sound of the molimo, an instrument associated with the elephant hunts. With elephants now a protected species both the hunt and the instrument are thought to be things of the past as the only time the Bayaka will play the instrument is for hunting purposes.
When the movie opens we find Whitman back home in the States looking for funding to continue his work and being told he’s in no physical shape to tackle the intense heat of Africa again. In spite of his doctor’s warning, “there’s no more trips to Africa for you Larry”, he refuses to give up his quest to record the molimo. However upon his return to the Central African Republic he discovers things have changed for the worse. The local Bantu mayor has forbidden the Bayaka to enter the forests and confined them to a small village. The mayor hope is to somehow convince the authorities to waive their protection of the Bayaka traditional lands so he can capitalize on a lumber company’s desire to harvest the forests in those areas.
Confined to a village Whitman finds the Bayaka have fallen into the same malaise plaguing indigenous people everywhere forced from their lands. Instead of following their traditional way of life they have become dependent on earning what they can from casual labour and have started to succumb to the lure of the material goods money can buy. There’s also the feeling that alcohol is starting to play too much of a role in helping them forget their troubles. Only one man seems to have been able to avoid the trap, tribal shaman Sataka and his wife Ekadi have ignored the mayor’s edict to stay out of the forest and continue to live there as they always have.
When Whitman heads off into the forest in an attempt to find Sataka, in the hopes of somehow hearing the sound of the elusive molimo, the rest of the tribe, knowing how hopeless he is at surviving on his own, set out after him. It’s through these scenes in the forest that Currier makes her strongest arguments against the displacement of peoples from their habitat. Simply watching the Bayaka moving through the undergrowth with ease compared to the struggles Whitman experiences simply walking the same paths, tells you all you need to know about them and their environment. Contrasting how they are in the forest to their lives in the village nobody can doubt which is truly their home.
Currier has taken full advantage of her media, sounds and visuals, to get her message across. By allowing us to see and hear the forest and how the Bayaka interact with it, it’s obvious where they belong. At no point does anybody make any speeches, nor are the lives of the people being portrayed sentimentalized. When Whitman argues against a proposed elephant hunt, the Bayaka look at him as if he was crazy. Elephants have been a traditional staple of the people for as long as they’ve been there. They provide enough meat to feed the entire tribe for long periods of time, why shouldn’t they hunt it? “Don’t you like meat?” they ask him. The harsh reality of the hunter gatherer lifestyle doesn’t allow for any room to sentimentalize one’s source of food.
All the Bayaka tribes people roles are performed by members of the tribe. According to production notes online they were initially perplexed as to what was expected of them. They had become so used to people making documentary film about them the idea of acting out something instead of just doing it was at first confusing. Judging by the results it’s obvious they caught on quickly enough, as the performance by all are natural and completely believable.
Oka is a wonderful movie on a couple of fronts. Not only does it do a wonderful job of telling Whitman’s story, including his obsession with recording all the sounds and music associated with the Bayaka people, it is as honest as portrayal as you’ll ever see of the effects of displacement upon the displaced. Here are a people who if left alone would simply carry on as they’ve done for generations. Ideally suited to their home environment, they don’t need to be rescued, they need to be left alone. Unfortunately we don’t have the greatest record when it comes to leaving things alone. Maybe films like this one will help us understand how somethings are fine just the way they are and in some cases change isn’t necessarily for the better.
Oka was first released in theatres in October 2011 and is being shown in selected theatres on specific dates around the world. Check the web site for dates of a screening near you.