25 years ago, ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno traveled from New Jersey to the forests of Central Africa to record the music of the Bayaka Pygmies. Falling in love with a Bayaka girl and her forest lifestyle, he decided to stay. “OKA!” tells the adventure of his life in Africa with his adopted family.
The Bayaka pygmies maintain a tenuous balance between their traditional forest existence and their increasing dependence on the Bantu villagers. Through the eyes of Larry, the tall, ungainly white man from New Jersey, who in spite of his failing liver accompanies the Bayaka on a journey into the heart of the forest, “OKA!” offers a unique glimpse into the music, humor, and spirit of the Bayaka people.
“OKA!” is directed by Lavinia Currier and filmed in Sango, Akka, French, and English. It is based on Louis Sarno’s memoir, Last Thoughts Before Vanishing from the Face of the Earth, and stars Kris Marshall, with Isaach de Bankolé and Will Yun Lee, and a magnificent local Bayaka ensemble cast.
Bijan Tehrani: When did you encounter with the idea of making OKA for the first time?
Lavinia Currier: I first traveled to the Central African Republic to cast a film of the true story of Ota Benga, a Pygmy man from the Congo who was brought to the US in 1905 for the World’s Fair, then abandoned at the Natural History Museum in New York, sent to the Bronx Zoo, and finally ‘rescued’ by African-Americans in Virginia who wanted to train him as a missionary. He committed suicide after 11 years in America. In the end decided not to make the film, as the story was grim and I was concerned of repeating history with the Bayaka man who I had chosen to play Ota. I later asked Louis Sarno, who had been my translator with the Bayaka, if he knew a contemporary story that as much as possible showed a ‘slice of life’ with the Bayaka, in the forest and in the village. He modestly proposed his memoir.
BT: What was your motivation in making of OKA? Your concern for environmental issues or the interesting story of Louis Sarno?
LC: Both. Louis’ story is integrally involved with that of the Bayaka, who are teetering on the verge of losing their culture, and likely their lives if their forest is not preserved in a way that they can subsist from it. If that happens, one of the last functioning hunter-gatherer groups on earth will vanish. at the same time, Louis’ sojourn with the Bayaka represents an unusual situation.
BT: How close is your film to the book and why decided to use OKA instead of original title of the book ” Last Thoughts Before vanishing from Face Of The Earth”?
LC: The film is very close to the memoir. I liked Oka! which is the Bayaka word for ‘listen’ as it expresses the Bayaka’s superb attentiveness to the natural world, and perhaps is a plea that we also listen. “Last thoughts…” is a bit long, don’t you think?
BT: How was the process of writing the screenplay?
LC: Great. Louis came to New York, installed himself in our guest room, and entertained me and my 8 year old son with fantastic stories; sadly some of my favorites did not make it in to the film. Louis is a wealth of arcane and essential knowledge. When we’re writing he never went outside. My son would greet our dinner guests at the door and say, “Come meet our friend from Africa- he has leprosy!”
BT: Did meeting Louis Sarno in person help you in making of the film?
LC: Oka! Could not have been made without Louis. He was our liaison to the Bayaka of Yandoumbe, who gave themselves to the project in large part for him.
BT: How challenging was shooting the film in locations?
LC: Very challanging. CAR has only produced one other feature film, shot in ’87. The local authorities were very tough. Now the CAR government is very proud of the film, and has submitted it for a foreign Oscar.
BT: Did you go through extensive rehearsal sessions for this film or you started working with the actors on the set?
LC: We rehearsed the Bayaka for a month before shooting. Basic acting exercises, games, making people comfortable playing. Already the Bayaka are great storytellers and musicians, so they are not strangers to performance.
BT: Did you let your actors to improvise on the set and while you were shooting your film?
LC: Yes, with amateur actors, we had to improvise, as things were always changing.
BT: How did you go about casting your film?
LC: Kris, Isaach and Will were cast in typical fashion. Isaach knew Louis through mutual friends. All the village of Yandoumbe answered the casting call, so we did exercises to see who could do the roles. Over a month, it became clear that our lead characters were most expressive, but of course there were surprises. Mapumba, who plays Sataka was living in the forest with his wife. We drove to his camp and asked him if he would be in the film. I was surprised that he agreed, He is the great hunter and medicine man he plays in the film. I was worried that after a couple of weeks and salary, the hunters would walk off. Instead, two weeks into the shooting I suddenly felt that the Bayaka had decided to devote them to the film for the duration; it became palpable on set.
BT: Please tell us about visual style of your film.
LC: I did not want Oka! To look like a documentary, even if it has many scenes of the forest and was mostly shot with available light. I wanted to give a visual formality to the Bayaka, and to the beauty of the forest. There were limitations, given the environment, to our choices of shooting style. The cinematographer Conrad Hall and I decided to shoot in 35 for practical reasons as the camera holds up better in humid conditions.
BT: What is your next project?
LC: A trilogy of fables of which I’ve shot the first one, the next takes place in Haiti.