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October 17, 2013


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Lavinia Currier - 2011
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

I had forgotten that I had seen Lavinia Currier's previous film, Passion in the Desert, about sixteen years ago. I guess I can describe the film as a love story between a Napoleonic era soldier and a leopard. Oka! might be best described as a love story between an American ethnomusicologist and a pygmy tribe in central Africa. Aside from both films centered on white men in Africa, both share a premise where the men "find themselves" by getting lost. One of these days, I would hope Currier would make an autobiographical film. Consider this brief description from her own life, from a story in the Washington Post: "In one of her more outlandish acts - but certainly not the only one - she hacked off her blond hair with a penknife on the banks of the Nile after catching a river fever, and then wandered the Sahara alone in this afflicted condition - 'feeling quite sick in an otherworldly kind of way,' she says - until she arrived months later, barefoot and in rags, at the Tunisian palace of her scandalized great aunt, the Baroness D'Erlanger.".

While Currier's film is based on the life of Louis Sarno, it really can't be described as biographical in the usual sense. There are several moments of what I can only describe as the cinematic equivalent to magic realism. In an early scene, the character based on Sarno, Larry, hears the call of a tribesman, thought the two men are separated by the Atlantic Ocean. Soon afterward, a burst of butterflies fills Larry's room. In spite of ill health, Larry travels back to Africa to complete his recordings of the music of the Bayaka tribe, in hopes of capturing the sounds of an elusive, and perhaps mythical, instrument.

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Larry's life with the Bayaka, and his efforts to record the sounds and music of the tribal area, are cross-cut against a narrative of tribal rivalries, with a member of the Buntu tribe, known as The Mayor, acting as the government strongman. A sub-plot involves a businessman representing a Chinese corporation, and their interests in taking over traditional hunting grounds for in order to harvest timber in the area. The village is home to a lumber mill, representing the industrial exploitation of the area and its people. The ecological and cultural concerns are clearly presented through the images. What might be considered heavy handed is that the Sarno proxy's last name is Whitman.

The title is the pygmy word for listen. Larry's nickname is "Big Ears". Using Sarno's own words, Larry considers the tribal music to be the equivalent to Beethoven. As best as I can tell, the music is genuine. The film's attitude is best expressed when the tribe has a celebratory dance. Another tribe member steps in with a portable tape player. The music from the tape player temporarily dominates the live music of the tribe, until a village elder takes a spear to end what he considers noise. Currier does make a concession to fans of "world music" with a score by Chris Berry.

On the film's website, Sarno emphasizes the fictionalization of his life. In some ways, Oka! seems like a throwback to the days when the only way one could travel to a remote part of the world was through the movies. What is different is the change of attitude from that of older films about white men in Africa. The use of dreams and images of the forest and its animals also recalled for me the art of Henri Rousseau.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 17, 2013 07:12 AM