Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Oka!, A Filmmaker Explores an Unseen, Unheard African Community

Boy, did director Lavina Currier take on a challenge. Not only did she elect to direct the film Oka! in Africa, but she made it about a people, the Bayaka, and in a country, The Central African Republic, that’s thoroughly unfamiliar with modern filmmaking.

Based on an unpublished book by an obscure author/musicologist with few veteran actors (Kris Marshall and Isaach de Bankolé) and a cast that includes the indigenous tribe playing most of the characters, the film defied conventional market strategies.

And that’s just the basic outline of this project’s unique nature.

After American musicologist Louis Sarno decided to live among a Bayaka Pygmy clan in the Central African Republic in the mid ‘80s, he wrote a book chronicling his experiences, Song From The Forest, and recorded their music. Those recordings became Bayaka: The Extraordinary Music of the BaBenzl Pygmies (Ellipsis Arts), a two-CD/book package of never-before documented material.

Though raised in New Jersey, Sarno has called the CAR his home for the past 25 years with intermittent visits the States. Oka! -- which means “listen!” in their native language -- is a dramedy that retells his tale of when he first arrived in the jungle -- based on an unpublished memoir.

Since Currier’s previous films have already taken her all over the world, she had an idea what she was getting into making Oka!. She visited Tibet in working on The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet's Struggle for Freedom and the Sahara for Passion in the Desert. And her philanthropic work includes environmental causes -- Oka! was filmed carbon-neutral in the Dzanga-Sangha Nature Reserve of Central Africa, a site growing in popularity with eco-tourists. In fact, for her work on behalf of Tibetan refugees, the Dalai Lama presented her with his Truth Award.

Nonetheless, as revealed in this exclusive interview, her experience didn’t entirely prepare for the singular act of shooting among the Bayaka and the dominant Bantu-speaking people who offered unique challenges to the filmmakers as well. And now that film is being released, audiences can share in the experience.

Q: Why did you make a film in an African country where there are virtually no film resources, as opposed to one say like Nigeria or South Africa?

LC: I've always loved Africa. I found this region while casting a film about Ota Benga. Do you know the story of Ota Benga?

Q: No…

LC: He was the pygmy who was brought to the World's Fair in 1905 -- a very sad story. I wrote a screenplay with a wonderful novelist [about him]. I was so proud of this screenplay; everyone who read it cried and said, "This has to be made." It was during that period of racial ignorance and horror.

[There were] many reasons I didn't make the film -- 9/11, and funding for example. There was another film made by Regis Wargnier, who did Indochine, called Man to Men, about a pygmy couple who was brought to Scotland. It took place 40 years earlier. It was kind of the missing link.

And I watched it. I had to chase it [down] in this little cinema in Paris, and found it so depressing.

I was talking to the Bayaka about the story, and they said, "That's a terrible story." I said, “Yeah, it is, but we learn from our mistakes and don't repeat history and all the things in our culture." And they said, "We would forget a story like that. There are so many nice stories."

Q: At what point did you know you had a story to tell?

LC: When we were there for Ota Benga and decided not to do Ota Benga, I went back and said to Louis [who helped with our research], “What about doing a slice of life in the village? Do you have any manuscript that you haven't used, you haven't published that we could use for that?"

And he said [he had a manuscript at his Mother’s.] We had to find this [floppy] disk. Nobody could read it, so I took it to a decrypted or whatever you call it.

Q: Backwards technology...

LC: After reading it, I laughed and said, "This is wonderful," because he gets out of the way, his character is very self-deprecating, and you really feel the life of the village and the forest.

So that's how we came to it. I wanted to do something, as a white woman telling a story about African people can…

Q: That's a whole other issue -- what a white woman has to deal with in those areas.

LC: They have so many problems with the Bantus that they like white people. They didn't go through colonialism; it's not a post-colonial culture.

Q: Even though the French were there?

LC: The Bayaka didn't. Central Africa was affected by slavery, but not by colonialism -- not in the sense that there were big plantations. It wasn't an easy place.

But when we were back there -- aside from showing the film and doing some politicking -- we also did more music recording. The composer Chris Perry, an amazing African, was married and lived in Zimbabwe for seven years -- he had been was [Zimbabwe's dictator Robert] Mugabe's boy.

His wife's father was attorney general, I think, for Mugabe, and then fell out of favor and was killed by Mugabe.

So Chris, who has an amazing facility for understanding African music, did the recording the first time. He went back with us in the forest in August, because we're doing an album for the film.

He did what he calls radio cues, but more modern kind of dance music out of the Bayaka rhythms. He had these women from the forest laying down multi-tracks. They'd never had earphones on… These women would come from the forest. They say they dreamed their songs and would say, "I dreamt this song some time ago in the forest."

One of them said, “When I woke up my husband was dreaming the same song and we were singing together."

One woman from the Congo -- she had leprosy, no toes, no fingers -- and she’s sitting there, trying to get into it, and she's hearing her voice for the first time through the headphones. The first couple of times, everyone's laughing and laughing because they're not kind and polite in that way. Then suddenly, she starts singing.

Chris said they just took to it. They would be standing in line for Chris in the morning, they got into it so much. So we've got a good album, I think.

Q: Did you videotape this?

LC: Yes we did. We did a little sort of "Return of," because we didn't do a “Making of.” It was too stressful.

We barely got through our days and the producer was constantly doing the 16-hour trek up to jungle to make sure our set wasn't going to be closed down by goons.

Q: Too bad you didn’t videotape as you shot the film.

LC: I know. I wish so, too. That was the intention of the producer, but he was so stretched he couldn't do it.

Q: You're going to have to go back -- you have that additional footage.

LC: We do, actually, which is great. It was really interesting.

Q: Did this film follow your budget or did you have cost overruns, because of all the issues paying off people?

LC: We never paid anyone off, which is why we kept getting stopped.

Q: Were you worried that if you paid one, then you'd have 50,000 hands out?

LC: Right. We made a deal with the Minister of Culture in the beginning and paid a location fee, which is normal.

The Minister of Finance came and said, “And mine?" And we said, "Well, we were told that film went through the Minister of Culture." He said "I don't know who told you that."

Q: How'd you get around that?

LC: In that case it was pretty hairy, because he was a pretty tough cookie. He's not there anymore. And he said to the producer "By the way, our bank account was messed up, so I want you to write the check to Mr. XYZ."

He had been sending his goons down, the producer was intimidated, so he wrote a check. [The producer] got a copy of it, and as he left the office he put a stop payment at the bank. The Minister of Finance himself called the teller and overrode the stop payment.

Q: So you did end up paying him?

LC: That was the only one. And other than that, we didn't.

Q: When did you know you had an ending?

LC: The ending should have been a real elephant hunt, because the molimo, this mythical instrument, is associated with the elephant hunt. You kill an elephant and the molimo is happy and it comes out.

And the elephants, after three days of chasing them around and getting them to do this and that, lost patience with us. And my crew said on the third day "We're not going back. We don't care what you pay us; we're not going back because we're going to be killed." And it was getting dangerous.

Q: Killed by the elephants?

LC: Yeah, by the elephants. And we'd been going on the good will of the elephants who had been accustomed to this researcher, this lovely woman, Andrea, who herself has been there 20 years.

Q: Elephants are incredibly intelligent.

LC: Very intelligent. And they'll stop you. They'll warn you with a couple of charges and then they'll charge.

I am fearless with animals. I never feared snakes or elephants or anything.

Q: Did you have any big cats?

LC: I never saw them. There are leopards, but I never saw them.

Q: There are jungle leopards.

LC: That was my last film, Passion in the Desert, which was about a Napoleonic soldier and a leopard.

Q: How did you contend with distribution for that one, or this one for that matter?

LC: Well, it's not a good period for this level of budget. We don't have a big name, although [British actor] Kris Marshall is coming into his own.

Q: Why did you cast him?

LC: I had been talking to a couple of bigger names who wanted essentially the budget of the picture, and I really had some doubts about whether a star would make it through.

Kris is a very physical actor, especially for an Englishman, who are [usually] very text-based, on the whole. I knew that he had that kind of British "it's a job, I'm going to do it” attitude. I mean, that man was so sick that he was lying on a bench in the forest.

Q: He's not only sick in the movie but was also in real life?

LC: He was very sick. I would say, "Kris, you can take a day off. You don't have to be here." "No. It's my job. Call me."

I had an instinct that this guy was crazy enough. He's been run over by a bus, broken every bone in his body, and had so many accidents, that I just had a feeling he would stay the course.

Q: How did you happen to pick African actor Isaach de Bankolé for the villain?

LC: He's a wonderful actor. Louis Sarno went to school with [director] Jim Jarmusch. Jim introduced me to Isaach, and Isaach was so charming when I met him in New York.

But then during the shoot -- he's a method actor -- he became this mayor [Mayor Bassoun], and everybody was terrified of him including me.

Q: And he's the nicest guy in reality.

LC: Nicest guy. But on the shoot, he was terrified until not only his last scene, but four days later. He insisted on staying on.

I said, "You can go early, Isaach, since you seem to be so unhappy," and he said, "What do you mean? I'm not leaving. I’m going to stay until my contract." And then he sort of decompressed and he became again the nicest guy.

But he became the Mayor to such an extent that he would go around in town and people would say, “Monsieur Bassoun, can you help us with this and that?" And he had everyone terrified.

The tailor said "Please, could you send somebody other than Isaach to check on his clothes?"

The real Mayor was absolutely furious and jealous. He used to come in his motorcycle, this horrible illiterate bully, and scream at me about something, and I think it was because Isaach was being considered as the mayor.

Q: I've listened to some of the pygmies' music and it was probably recorded by Louis.

LC: It's either his or [anthropologist] Colin Turnbull‛s. We put everything from traditional Bayaka music to cues from the film to these kind of radio cues, these modern dance things.

Q: Had you taken an interest in African music in general?

LC: I've always loved African music. But the Bayaka's music is considered the most ancient -- they were brought to sing for the Pharaohs. It took me awhile to understand the Bayaka music.

That's why Louis Sarno‛s Song From the Forest was so crucial. Louis was sent to Africa by Colin Turnbull whol wrote The Forest People and also wrote the book about the Ethiopian people, the Ik -- the mountain people.

And he got into incredible hot water because he dared to say the pygmies are good and the Ik are bad, and the anthropological community said, "You can't say that. You can't make those judgments.” He said, "I know. I've looked in their eyes and lived with them."

But I think that Louis has an amazing appreciation for this music. It's really complicated music.

Q: It doesn't fit normal musical structures.

LC: Not at all. They think in 28 phrases. Their cycles are huge, and most people just get lost in them -- they go, "What's happening?" It's chaotic.

They sing in the way nature sings with itself. Birds and animals wait for the empty space and jump in, and they'll do this -- though not necessarily on a regular basis.

Q: It's not like there's a harmonic layer.

LC: Right. You opportunistically jump into a silence, and the Bayaka have incorporated this into their music.

The first time I ever heard them, I was in a canoe and we were with a Bantu guy. I said, "What are those birds?" and he said "Those aren't birds. Those are the little people."

Then we saw these women walking single file, very quickly, and were singing to each other at quite a distance. Maybe for a quarter of a mile that they were actively singing. It was the most extraordinary thing, because there were these bell-like, beautiful yodeling sounds that I had never imagined.

Q: Have you learned any of the language?

LC: I did learn some rudimentary [phrases], which is not a difficult language to learn -- just to direct people, because most of our actors didn't speak French.

Q: So you went to university but when did you get involved with film?

LC: I studied a tiny bit of film at Harvard. But basically, I studied poetry with Robert Fitzgerald, and I think my major was Religion. I was in the Religion Department.

Q: At what point did you decide to go with filmmaking?

LC: I came to film through theater. I went to Paris from university and started an American theater in Paris with some friends from Harvard, which was a lot of fun. We didn’t do anything too great. French people came to learn English, basically, but we had a great time.

Q: Did you meet Africans while you were there?

LC: No, I didn't. But you know, it was a different complexion back them. On the last trip to Africa, I stopped in Leone, and Leone is a Pan-African city.

Q: One of the reasons I was fascinated by this movie, and movies about this, is that in some way it's like dealing with another world.

LC: It is another world.

Q: Like you've landed on another planet.

LC: And you feel that, and everyone feels it -- even the crew from Los Angeles -- they were in utter culture shock when they arrived there. Oh my god, and with the big Panavision camera, [it was] like moving a fire hydrant around.

Q: Did people do it because they just wanted the chance to go to Africa?

LC: People did it because Conrad Hall -- the DP that we chose, son of the famous Conrad Hall -- insisted on bringing his group. And we said, “Not a good idea, Conrad," but he said, "These guys are going to take care of the camera." And he was right, but they were in shock. They were duly warned.

Q: It's not even like going to Nigeria which has a fully realized film scene.

LC: No. This is not Abercrombie & Fitch. This is forest camping; don't think luxury. But then, after a period of time, they said, "There's something here with these people."

Everyone feels this magic. Seen from the outside, Africa is just a disaster of statistics, right? But when you go there, especially with people like the Bayaka, you feel so hopeful. You feel like you're connected to something that's ancient.

We all have this history of having come from the hunter-gatherer tradition at some level, and you feel this kind of connection. And even these guys [from] L.A. -- who would have preferred to be doing a Mercedes commercial -- they felt it too.

Q: When would they get another chance to shoot in Africa?

LC: I'm not sure they were sure they were going to get back [laughs].

Q: Were they terrified?

LC: Terrified. And we had a lot of interference from the government.

Q: Did you really?

LC: We did. A lot. These guys would come down with machine guns and stop the film.

Q: Really? It's the former French Congo, right?

LC: It was called Ubangi. It was always that little central landlocked country where the two rivers, the Ubangi and the Congo, came down. So the neighbors are Rwanda, Chad, Congo and Cameroon.

We just took the film back in August because I had promised to bring it back to show it to the Bayaka. And the first screening was in the forest.

Q: The very, very first?

LC: Yeah. The first in Africa.

Q: You screened it at the Telluride Film Festival by then. You couldn't get more contrasting.

LC: I know. It had cables, and the producer Jamie Bruce, was practically manning the sound system in the forest. It kept tipping.

All the Bayaka were there, it was only Bayaka for the first screening in the forest.

Q: But where was Sarno?

LC: He was there. It was behind his house in the forest. Of course they said it was the best film they'd ever seen; they'd never seen a film before.

Q: At least they knew to compliment you.

LC: Yes. Then we moved up the country and the last screening was with the president of CAR, [François] Bozizé, in the presidential palace. And I had brought the actors, because it's very important for them.

It was a really tremendous experience. When we screened in the capital, we did questions and answers afterwards.

And the comment we got universally was, "We're so happy to see a film where the white guy is kind of hopeless, and our little people" – they call them the little people – "our little people have to save them, they can't do anything. We're tired of having these films where all our problems are solved by some white guy coming in."

Q: Next the Chinese will make their movies and they will be saving them.

LC: Our Chinese character has been not appreciated [who also is villainous]. Not by the UN. We were supposed to have a screening there.

The French, the Lebanese, they've all been in there. So it's just a new wave. I felt the Chinese character, he could have been American, Lebanese or French, but he was Chinese. The reaction has been very strong.

Q: The scene with the bush meat that he's eating: is it implied that that was elephant meat?

LC: It was elephant. The bush meat is crucial, because for the Bayaka to survive they have to have small game to go after.

When I first went in 1999, they said they had to travel about 20-30 minutes to get food. I mean, they could hunt within 20 minutes of the village. Now they have to go a half day, sometimes a full day. Sometimes they come back empty-handed.

So the less they can depend on the forest, the more they have to depend on the Bantu, and they get paid three cigarettes and a few stalks for a day's work.

Q: Are there still diamonds there?

LC: There are a lot of diamonds.

Q: So there are potential resources.

LC: But the diamonds are so prone to corruption.

Q: You'd think that tourism would be the way.

LC: And that's the hope.

Q: Eco-tourism is the thing that can save Africa.

LC: Right.

Q: They said you were a philanthropist.

LC: The philanthropy associated with this film -- people say, "Are you giving back to the Bayaka from the film?"

Well, if the Bayaka had to wait for this film to give back [to them], the forest could be gone at that point.

Q: It might bring them some publicity.

LC: I've been active there since I first went to cast it, and I saw there was such a tremendous need for health and education for these people, as well as to protect the forest.

Q: We keep forgetting that if we strip away the rainforest, we strip away basically our ability to regenerate the ozone layer.

LC: So it's for us. But also, if we're going to have cultural diversity, these [people] are [among] the last hunter-gatherers on Earth.

You have the Bayaka, and in the equatorial forest you have other pygmy groups. You have a group in Borneo, and that's it.

Q: What about in South America? Isn't there one group that's still surviving?

LC: I guess you could still say there are some groups that are still hunter-gatherers, but the South American rainforest is being cut all around them as well.

The really crucial thing for the Bayaka is the forest, because it's really hard to imagine this particular people transitioning successfully into village or urban life.

They shouldn't have to. They should be able to have education; they should be able to have basic health care.

But what's interesting is that you're dealing with a culture which is anarchistic, non-hierarchical, non-representational -- like some of our American Indians -- and you're asking them to speak for themselves.

We're going in and we're saying, "But you guys have to be educated so you can stand up in front of the UN and express yourselves."

Well, it's not a culture that develops that at all. It's a culture that's absolutely communal, decisions are made by consensus. Just by hearing their music, you hear this. The way they opportunistically sing in this amazing kind of participatory, polyphonic way, it expresses everything about them.

Q: Where do you live now?

LC: I now live in Virginia, and I grew up in New York. I'd been living in Hawaii. I made the film from Hawaii, which was not a smart thing, but I did.

Q: And this is your fourth movie?

LC: This is my second feature.

Q: How did you find your distributor, DADA?

LC: I think our counsel knew the distributor, and we really liked what they were doing on Last Mountain -- a very powerful film about dysfunction of our government here, talking about corruption and bribery. We liked very much the way they were handling it and the style that they have of distribution.

Q: Now that you have a distributor, you're not doing the festivals anymore?

LC: No, we're not.

Q: Did you go to some other festivals?

LC: We did not go international with the film. It's a co-production with Central Africa, and they've submitted it as a contender for the Foreign Film Oscar.

Q: Would that be for this year?

LC: Yeah. First film ever that they've had, so they're very excited about that.

Q: Have you toured this film in Africa at all?

LC: Just this last trip in August. We just went to Central African Republic from the tip, where the Bayaka are, up to the capital.

Q: You've got to get it all throughout Africa.

LC: And they're very interested in that. The Minister of Culture now is a wonderful man, who's one of [the late dictator Jean-Bédel] Bokassa's sons. He's been doing some really interesting things, including reconciliations about his dad. Very enlightened fellow.

And he's taken up this film. He wants to take this film all over, because for them it shows their country in a positive light. Otherwise, with Central Africa, you hear about Bokassa and you hear about the Lords‛ Revolution Army on the northern side.

So they're excited to have something that is good news and to showcase their country. They're really motivated to take it around, so I think we will. But so far, we have only been to Central Africa.

Q: And how about yourself, traveling in Africa?

LC: I love Africa.

Q: How many other areas?

LC: I've been around. When I was a child, I was in East Africa -- Kenya and Tanzania. I've been to Central Africa quite a few times.

Q: We need movies like this. And doing it as a fiction film, that will get people more attracted than a documentary.

LC: I know. There have been so many documentaries, especially about the Bayaka.

Q: But to actually see people behaving in an acting scenario is much more interesting.

LC: And the fact that they're good actors is pretty extraordinary. That was a great surprise to me.

Q: Where do you go from here?

LC: I need to make a film locally because I have a son, I have a young 10 year old. I did take him to Africa, but being a mom and a film director is not a great combo. So I'm going to try to find something locally. I have a few scripts that I'm working on -- a trilogy that I began that I want to complete.

Q: Are you going to draw from cultures that are disenfranchised and have their problems?

LC: I would like to. There's so much happening right now that one wants to do something useful.

I would like to tell an American story for sure. There's so much happening in this country now.

Q: And these will be fiction films?

LC: Fiction, yeah. I don't feel I have a good journalistic bent.

Q: Well, the best thing for a journalistic bent is like a six year old, "Why?"

LC: Yeah. Curiosity.

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