Oka! Movie: Endangered Music and People in the Heart of the Congo Forest (Interview)

OKA! movie photo

Images courtesy of Olivia Bruynoghe / Roland Films

Deep in the forests of central Africa live people who rely on those forests for survival. It is not a game or a TV reality show, and the jungle is not territory to be feared and overcome. Filmmaker Lavinia Currier wanted to document and celebrate how fully adapted people like the Bayaka Pygmies are to their natural environment. "Bayaka Pygmy culture is anarchistic and non-materialist, almost opposite to our, and yet the experience of hunter-gatherers still resonates with us, having been human's way of life for most of our history," she writes.

Oka!, which means listen in the Bayakan language, is the title of Currier's latest film. It's based on American ethnomusicologist Larry Whitman's relationship with the Bayaka Pygmies in the Central African Republic, and explores the lessons he learns both from them and about the threats facing their habitat and way of life. He spends years recording and preserving the music of the Bakaya of Yandombe, and Oka! documents his last trip—despite a failing liver that threatens his life—to Yandombe to find the one instrument missing from his library, the elusive molimo.
Like all forested areas of the world, the Bayaka battle the threats posed by increasing deforestation, but they are also threatened by the bushmeat trade and by poor local and national governance.

Larry looks like he stands out, but he is welcomed as one of the Bayaka's own. The film takes you through his journey with them, which involves not just life in the forest, but a struggle with the Bantu people, their power- and money-hungry mayor, and a Chinese businessman to whom the mayor is trying to sell the forest for timber.

OKA! Larry and family photo

It's a great watch. Variety sums it up well: "Suggestive of Monty Python, evocative of Scots novelist William Boyd ("A Good Man in Africa") and generally disdainful of modern stereotypes and patriarchal white-man-on-the dark-continent stories, Lavinia Currier's film has the kind of freewheeling sensibility and contempt for conformity that could give it theatrical traction -- even if, as regards just about anything in the specialty arena, the current climate seems particularly hostile."

Talking With the Filmmaker
I spoke with Lavinia Currier earlier this week, a few days before the film opens in theaters. The first premiere is in New York tomorrow, October 14.

I asked Currier about her intentions for the film— if part of the message was to connect the lives of western audiences with the environmental devastation in the precious Congolese forest. "It's interesting because I didn't want to make a message film," she said. She felt it "did the Bayaka an injustice to make them the subject of a film about an international disaster."

Living With Nature
"I wanted to show the people who, I think because of their harmony with their environment, because of their incredible ecological intelligence, have found a way to live when allowed to live freely in the forest." And to not only survive, but to meet all the basic human needs while also leaving time for fun and play, for learning resilience and experiencing joy. "All the things that make the human experience beautiful," said Currier.

Fighting the all-too-common portrayal of Africa "as a statistical disaster," and the belief many outsiders have that if you throw money at a problem, you can fix it, Currier found "lessons from the Bayaka about how you can live and how you can be in your environment and how you can self-regulate in terms of your impact on the forest."

These are ideas that Currier portrays quite well in the film, which she said is 95-percent true. Knowing that, it's really sometimes hard to believe. The film is about a lot of things, but the storyline follows Whitman to this village as he searches for the molimo. One of the most incredible scenes takes place in a creek deep in the forest, and you hear a drumming performance and have no idea where it's coming from. Anyone who has an appreciation for either nature or music would probably appreciate hearing the incredible sounds that can be produced with no instruments at all.

Currier wanted to show the outside world this small population that holds knowledge about nature and its surroundings that could astound any westerner. They survive and thrive in a forest where any outsider would not last more than a day: they find food, they find health, they find joy.

Threatened Way of Life
Bayaka pygmies are among the last hunter-gatherer cultures in the world, with just a few others between all continents combined, said Currier. "In terms of the Bayaka, the great danger is the bushmeat trade and logging. The diminished state of their habitat."

The logging operations change: there were French companies for awhile, Lebanese, Greek. Now the main interests are, as in so much of Africa, Chinese. But the practices have been essentially the same for decades: demand fuels foreign corporations' desire and ability to expand their presence in areas where politicians are often easily bribed, allowing these two players to win big while everyone else, local populations and the planet's ecosystem alike, loses even bigger.

The international bushmeat trade is another threat. Currier admits that the Bayaka are hunters—she makes no secret of that in the film. But, she says, their diet has traditionally been a varied and balanced one, made of meats, greens, mushrooms, and fruit, many types of which she'd never even seen before. A sustainable diet both for the health of the people and for the local ecosystem.

But as the international bushmeat trade, which has twice the impact as subsistence hunting, has continued to grow, the Bayakas' own food supply has dwindled. And since it's small game they depend on, they aren't helped much by conservation groups that may come in to protect elephants and gorillas—important work, she said, but they don't focus on the smaller animals that also keep a forest ecosystem thriving.

Currier said that when she first went to visit the Bayaka in the late 1990s, they could find game within 30 to 45 minutes of the village. Now, she said, "they have to go for half a day or a full day, and sometimes they don't find anything." That is not only a sign of the diminished health of the forest, but it also forces the people, who have lived for so long in both the village and the forest, to spend more and more time in the village and become more dependent on the Bantu people. She said many Bayaka will work in manioc fields owned by Bantu people, for example, which diminishes their self-sufficiency as well as their diet, since they will be paid in manioc—a rather starchy, nutrient-deficient root vegetable.

"It's really difficult to imagine them succeeding as village people or as townspeople," said Currier. "They have no education. They're at the bottom of an already marginalized society—we're talking about the fifth poorest country in the world."

Local Forest, Global Impacts
The forest that is home for the Bayaka is also part of the Congo Basin forest, the second largest intact forest in the world after the Amazon. "Not only from the point of view of the Bayaka and the rarity of hunter-gatherers, but also for global oxygen levels and so on, it's tremendously important." Indeed, African forests store 25 percent of total tropical forest carbon.

The Congo Basin occupies nearly 500 million acres—up to one quarter of the world's tropical forests. And according to WWF, the region has been inhabited by humans for more than 50,000 years and now supports more than 75 million people. It is home to 1,000 bird species, 400 mammal species, including most of the world's forest elephants and great apes—and the Congo River, one of the last intact tropical rivers in the world with 700 species of fish.

So it's not just the Bayaka who depend on the health of the forest—the whole planet does.

More on central Africa:
World's Poor Nations Plan On Combatting Climate Change, While Congress Denies It's Happening
Bushmeat Trade in Central Africa Severely Underestimated - Increases as Forest Cover Declines

Oka! Movie: Endangered Music and People in the Heart of the Congo Forest (Interview)
Deep in the forests of central Africa live people who rely on those forests for survival. It is not a game or a TV reality show, and the jungle is not territory to be feared and overcome. Filmmaker

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