Oka! tells tales within tales of primitive, transitional and perhaps sustainable Africa.
For her third film, part-time Hawaii writer-director Lavinia Currier (Passion in the Desert, full disclosure: this writer worked as a consultant on this film) has chosen an intricate challenge: a narrative without melodrama, telling several stories: Equatorial Banzele forest pygmies enduring enmity from neighboring Bantus; incursion by timber companies and illegal hunters (some from China) chasing after the magnificent elephants within the forest; a quest by a terminally ill American ethnomusicologist trying, before shades fall, to complete his musical-instrument collection by finding the befabled Molimo, an extremely rare instrument said to be able to call elephants.
Filmed in Africa, Hawaii (Paradise Park and Lyon Aboretum), New York and Los Angeles (at Warner Bros. Studios), Oka! details the musicologist’s search for his final discovery. This true-life tale (with a happy ending) is based on the memoir of musicologist Louis Sarno (who contributed to the screenplay), Currier’s environmental work in Africa, traditional Pygmy music (gorgeous, plentiful, beyond what most of us have never heard before). This is not a documentary: It is a narrative that re-creates the near-past, cross-cutting between passages of time.
By using many forest pygmies in the film, director-co-writer Currier guides several remarkable performances, including by one who becomes the musicologist’s wife. Others have large supporting roles, including those who use traditional weapons for obtaining elephant meat, besting the Chinese who use high-powered, telescopic-lensed rifles. (Frightened when the elephants came too close–inspired by the Molimo–our main Chinese hunter drops his rifle, and then flees.)
Throughout the stories, soundman Larry records Pygmy music (not all of it vocal or percussive), having been given the name “Big Ear” by the affectionate Pygmies, who trust him implicitly. This writer has never seen another film which makes so clear and persuasive about how central music is to the life of the challenged forest people. Almost any occasion, celebratory or solemn or reliant on spiritual guidance, becomes musicalized, often with dance and song. (The Pygmy language itself is musical.)
“Larry, your African days are over,” Larry’s New York doctor, perhaps just a tad overcivilized and dour, tells him. But the doctor is not hip to the pharmacopeia of the forest people, as it turns out. As Larry returns to Africa, the film rather slyly juxtaposes his comfort with natives with that of two “travelers” (“We are not tourists,” they say; but they most certainly are in ignorance and demeanor.)
Larry’s African days prove not to be over; and in this movie, in its lack of melodrama and Tarzanesque derring-do, gives us a far richer and more evocative picture of Africa than most Hollywood-centric such stories.
Oka! is well worth seeing.