Film Review: Oka!

Slow to start and rambling when it gets going, <i>Oka!</i> nevertheless offers small pleasures, not least a glimpse of life deep in the African rainforest.

A beguiling blend of documentary and fiction, Oka! ("listen," in the Akka language) is inspired by the experiences of ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno, who devoted himself to recording the music of Central Africa's Bayaka people. The film’s cast is almost entirely composed of Bayaka villagers from Yandombe, where Sarno has lived since the mid-1980s, and includes extensive footage of rainforest wildlife.

Larry Whitman (Kris Marshall), who spent years recording the music of the Bayaka pygmies, is languishing miserably at his mother's New Jersey home, listening to his tapes of Bayaka chants and pining for Africa, when a painful burst of shining static sends him in search of medical advice. The news is bad: Larry's liver is failing and his doctor (Peter Riegert) warns that his Africa days are over. Larry needs a transplant, not a physically rigorous sojourn far from hospitals and Medivac units. All of which convinces Larry that he has to go back: If he's going to die, he'd rather do it in Yandombe among people he loves, trying to track down and record the molimo, a legendary wind instrument everyone says is lost to history.

But Larry finds Yandombe changed. Their self-appointed Bantu mayor Bassoun (Isaach de Bankole), who condescendingly refers to the Bayaka as his "little brothers," has pressured them to move out of their ancestral rainforest into a village on its outskirts, and has granted logging rights to a Chinese businessman named Yi (Korean-American actor Will Yun Lee). Dismayed by the encroaching modern world, with its noise and wanton destruction of the natural world, tribal elder Sataka (Mapumba), Larry's old friend, has moved back to the forest with his wife, Ekadi (Essandja). Sataka's granddaughter, Makombe (Mbombi), is now a flirtatious young woman. Many of Yandombe's men are either working for Yi or too afraid of Bassoun to protest.

Larry clashes frequently with Bassoun—who plans to further disenfranchise the Bayaka by persuading them to illegally kill a jungle elephant, leaving him free to make further lumber deals with Yi—and eventually flees deep into the wild. Larry's twin goals are to find Sataka, who represents the old Bayaka way of life he found so seductive, and record the malimo.

Filmmaker Currier, for many years deeply involved with environmental causes, met Sarno when she hired him as her translator while researching a documentary about the pygmy Ota Benga, brought to the United States in 1905 as an "educational" exhibit featured in that year's World's Fair. Sarno persuaded her to switch to a project that better represented contemporary pygmy life.

Oka! is not for all tastes: The story is slow to get started and unfolds in a way that feels unfocused and rambling. But viewers willing to stay the course stand a good chance of surrendering to its unhurried rhythms and small but vivid pleasures: An up-close glimpse of a wild gorilla, going about its business with weighty grace; a tribal dance that revolves around a performer draped head to foot in dried fronds, like some primordial Cousin Itt; the villagers' affectionate teasing of Larry (they all agree that he can't dance to save his life, but it's fun to watch him try); the scene in which they follow his path into the forest, a chanting column of children, young people and elders determined to make sure their pet white man hasn't gotten himself into trouble.