Written and directed by Michael Obert
Germany/USA/Central African Republic, 2013
From harmony comes peace. Michael Obert’s luminous documentary, Song from the Forest, is a celebration of one man’s harmony that resonates from the heart of the jungle. At the same time, there’s an undeniable melancholy lacing every frame. The result is a deceptively complicated film that captures the inscrutable beauty of finding one’s place in the world and the economic realities of preserving it.
When Louis Sarno heard the beguiling music of a Pygmy tribe playing on his radio in 1985, he couldn’t possibly imagine that it would change his life forever. With only a few hundred dollars, a tape recorder, and a one-way ticket, Sarno journey deep into the rain forest to find the music that had so thoroughly possessed him. He encountered the Bayaka; a Congo River tribe that existed in almost perfect isolation. Sarno married a tribal woman, Goma, and they had a son, Samedi. And, of course, there was the polyphony of nature that filled every corner of the forest.
Sarno recorded literally thousands of hours of the Bayaka tribe, from traditional songs to late-night flute soliloquys in the forest. Even in the pitch dark, each flutist could be easily identified by their own signature style. Director Obert treats us to much of this music, usually accompanied by Sarno’s recollections of the musicians involved. The haunting tunes echo around the forest as if they have no direction, much like the demonic thunder of a sudden storm that sends the Bayaka scurrying into their shelters. It’s a peaceful lifestyle that Sarno, a self-described outsider from New York City, embraces completely. He came for the music and fell in love with the solitude.
Obert’s camera is unobtrusive throughout Song from the Forest. He is a quiet observer, content to let his subjects do all the talking… or singing, as the case may be. Sarno’s voice resonates with depth and reassurance; a born storyteller who’s spent his entire life looking for the stories. With the Bayaka, he found his soul, and when he’s forced to return to the City, he feels the dull ache of civilization weighing him down. Now, with his money almost gone and his health starting to fail (he suffers from Hepatitis B and D), Sarno takes Samedi on a journey to America, fully aware he may never see his sacred forest again.
Music fills nearly every frame of Obert’s film. Whether it’s the songs of the Bayaka or a 16th century Mass for Four Voices, we know exactly where Sarno’s mind is wandering by the soundtrack that follows him. It’s an effective window into the mind of a collective people that overcomes any language or cultural barriers.
What lends Song from the Forest such power, in stark contrast to many of the one-note eco-disaster documentaries, is that Obert doesn’t sidestep the reality of economic considerations. Sarno’s idealism can’t pay for his rent or health care. The Bayaka’s simple lifestyle won’t magically produce their much needed supplies. Samedi, surrounded by toys on his bed, laments that Sarno refuses to buy him “real things” like clothing and shoes. Even in the forest, where Sarno feels safest, Bayaka badger him for money that he doesn’t have. His role in the tribe has become that of a provider; clothing and medicine are charged to an ever-growing store tab that Sarno has little hope of paying off.
This distills the incomprehensible doom of impinging poachers or lumberjacks down to the relatable level of one man struggling to maintain his lifestyle. For an economically depressed part of the world, the forest is an exploitable resource that means money and jobs. Sarno laments the notion of working a job that doesn’t fortify his spirit, even as he contemplates failing to provide the necessities for his tribal brothers. The global economy consumes people like Sarno and the Bayaka every day, and this is Obert’s valiant attempt to show us the humanity we lose in the process.
Like cave drawings from a doomed civilization or relics from an abandoned city, Song from the Forest documents a lifestyle on the brink of extinction. Not just of the Bayaka, but of one man. Louis Sarno found peace in the forest, and he repaid that debt by preserving its harmony. As he watches his young son acclimate to life in the city, you can see a mixture of sadness and hope in Sarno’s face. The system that destroyed Samedi’s people is the only thing that can save him now. Director Michael Obert knows that to dissect things any further would only dilute the message. Instead, he offers a celebration of community through the joyful noise that it creates.
— J.R. Kinnard