Deep in the forests of the Central African Republic (CAR), the Bayaka Pygmies live what most Westerners would call simple or even primitive lives. Resistant to modernization and discriminated against by majority groups in the countries where they live, the Bayaka, like all “exotic peoples”, have long inspired the fascination of white male academics. Oka! itself revolves around one of these men, well-known ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno.
New Jersey, the mid-‘80s. In the movie Sarno is reimagined as Larry Whitman (Kris Marshall), who makes a visit to the doctor only to discover that he is suffering from a serious illness and needs a liver transplant immediately. The doctor tells Whitman that he can’t return to Africa after he finishes his US fundraising trip, but the ethnomusicologist simply can’t accept that idea. Against his doctor’s advice, he heads back to CAR immediately to begin the search for an elusive Bayaka instrument, the molimo.
When he arrives in CAR, Whitman finds that the Bayaka people with whom he has lived on previous trips are now threatened by the expansion of a sawmill. They’ve moved out of the forest and into a small town, where Mayor Bassoun (Isaach De Bankolé) prohibits them from entering the forest again. The Mayor is in the process of forging a deal with Chinese business mogul Mr. Yi (Will Yun Lee), who wants access to the rich resources in the surrounding forest. Of course, the forest is sacred to the Bayaka. Like so many people before them, they face extinction due to the pressures of so-called civilization.
Bassoun and Mr. Yi decide that the best way to convince the government to allow the land to be sold to the Chinese is to expose the Bayaka as poachers. The Mayor knows that the Bayaka will hunt elephant and so approaches the chief about having one killed on his behalf. Blind to the trap, the chief agrees. This is a real turning point for the film both technically and narratively. From here on out, we are treated to beautiful cinematography and superb sound editing. The story, too, gets much more interesting, even if it can’t recover from all of its problems.
Whitman spends his days in the Bayaka village recording music and conversing. It’s while recording music one day that he sees Makombe (Mbombi), the granddaughter of village shaman Sataka (Mapumba). He is fascinated by the girl almost instantly, asking the chief’s wife who she is and whether or not she has a husband. It’s a critically difficult point for the viewer, who has to wonder about the implications of a white, foreign academic falling in love with a village girl and making her his wife.
These ethical questions are never raised in the film, an odd choice on the part of director Lavinia Currier. The film focuses a great deal on how CAR and big business have come into the Bayaka world and forced them to change their customs, yet it never wonders what the impact of a foreigner integrating himself with the group and marrying one of its member might be. The differences in power and agency between Whitman and Makombe are so stunning that failing to address them strikes us as unacceptable.
Thankfully, Oka! does a decent job of tackling the social and political issues raised by the clash between the Mayor and the Bayaka. For the Bayaka, being kept in the village is akin to being kept prisoner. For Whitman, who desperately wants to find the mythical molimo, being forced to stay in the village is so offensive that he dreams up other plans. Ignoring Bassoun’s advice that his “little friends” must stay in the village, Whitman tells the Bayaka chief that he has received a dream from Sataka and is headed into the forest to find him.
Whitman takes off in the night to find Sataka and quickly finds himself disoriented. Still suffering from fever, we wonder if the scenes we’re seeing through his eyes are real or illusions. Just when Whitman seems too weak to continue, we’re taken back to the village, where the Bayaka are agonizing over whether or not they ought to follow him into the forest. The chief implores them, telling them that their friend Larry will surely die if they don’t leave the village.
So the Bayaka head into the forest and the film comes to a relatively quick conclusion. As much as we want to embrace this heart-warming return to their home, it’s hard to ignore the way in which Currier has framed Whitman as the sole reason for the Bayaka’s departure from the village. This may be the story as Sarno told it in his memoir, but therein the problem lies: it’s the story as Sarno told it. We’re not given the opportunity to see the departure from the Bayaka perspective, which holds the promise of greater nuance.
The one-sided perspective of Oka! makes it difficult to see the film as anything but a white savior narrative dressed up as a film about ethnomusicology. While Sarno’s story is certainly interesting and it’s worthwhile to see the marginalization of the Bayaka Pygmies on screen, the movie falls flat. It doesn’t give us the depth or complexity that we hope for. The actors in the film, mostly Bayaka themselves, are naturals, but we can’t allow their mere presence on screen to make us forget that they aren’t actually telling their own story.
The DVD release of Oka! offers no special features aside from the film’s original theatrical trailer. An interview with Sarno or closer look at his life’s work would have added depth to the film and might have allowed resolution for some of the unanswered ethical questions throughout.