Oka!: movie review

'Oka!' is fascinating despite a messy narrative structure.

By , Film critic

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    Kris Marshall plays Larry Whitman, an American whose life is transformed by his time with the Bayaka pygmies.
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"Oka!" is loosely based on the unpublished memoir of ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno, who was born in 1954 in New Jersey and has lived with Bayaka pygmies in the southwestern part of the Central African Republic for more than 25 years as a welcome member of their community.

His 1995 CD-book "Bayaka: The Extraordinary Music of the Babenzélé Pygmies" inspired filmmaker Lavinia Currier, for whom he once acted as a translator for research about a documentary about pygmies.

"Oka!," which means "listen," is a fictionalized version of Sarno's experiences in Africa with his adopted family.

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From a strictly narrative standpoint, "Oka!" is crudely fashioned. The story line has something to do with the exploitation of the pygmies' rain forest by an unscrupulous local Bantu mayor (Isaach De Bankolé). The acting by the professional actors, who also include Kris Marshall as Larry, the Sarno character, is overscaled compared with that of the actual Bayaka people who joined the cast as key performers.

Despite all this, "Oka!" is a fascinating movie with many free-form charms. (It's a bit reminiscent of the neglected 2000 film "Songcatcher," starring Janet McTeer as a turn-of-the-20th-century musicologist collecting folk songs in Appalachia.) At first I dreaded seeing another movie about a white Westerner uplifting the lives of black Africans, but this film presents the reverse scenario. Larry's life was transformed from the first moment he experienced Africa, and even though, at the beginning of the film, his doctor in New Jersey warns him that his failing liver cannot endure a return trip, he blithely reenters the fray, determined to record the native genius of the pygmies' sound.

The music has a complex 64-beat cycle. (Most Western pop music operates on a four- to eight-bar cycle.) Wielding his microphone on a long pole, Larry picks up the magic in the air. In one amazing sequence, he hides in the bush, with only the tip of his microphone protruding, as women in a nearby lake make music by pounding and splashing the water in percussive syncopation.

In addition to directing several other features and documentaries, Currier is also a board member of the World Wildlife Fund, and she has a receptive eye for the plangent beauties of the rain forests of the Congo River Basin. She also has an eye for the beauties of the African people, whom she films without condescension. The pygmies, averaging around 4-1/2 feet tall, are natural performers with an almost vaudevillian sense of play. Their teeth, sinister-looking at first, have been chipped into pointed, triangular shapes as marks of beauty. This takes some getting used to, but I found myself looking forward to the wide, happy grins of the tribal shaman Sataka (Mapumba), his wife, Ekadi (Essanje), and their flirty granddaughter, Makombe (Mbombi).

We don't need to have it demonstrated how difficult the lives of these people are, or how endangered is their way of life. The film itself subscribes to what Currier has described when she first contemplated her film: "In pygmy culture, they like to forget sad things and remember happy things, so I started to rethink that story from another perspective." Her film, mess though it is, captures an essential elation. Grade: B+ (Unrated)

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