Louis Sarno went to Africa in pursuit of his dream. 25 years ago, he followed a musical tradition into the jungles of the Central African Republic, where he found the Bayaka people. He never left. Accepted into this isolated society, he discovered a new community and a sense of peace.
Or, at least, that was his dream. In hindsight, it can also seem a bit like mythology. The tension between Sarno’s mission and his reality is the crux of Song from the Forest. German filmmaker Michael Obert traveled to the CAR to capture the hybrid lifestyle of this errant Westerner and the family he has made for himself. Sarno has a Bayaka wife and son. When he decides to take 13-year-old Samedi on a trip to America, to meet his uncle and cousins, Obert follows. The film is a blend of these two locales, a loosely assembled patchwork of insightful moments on two distant continents.
The reception they get in America is, inevitably, somewhat mixed. Sarno’s family has never fully understood why he left them so completely, choosing to spend the rest of his life far away, not only from their physical company but also from the easiest forms of communication. His friends, on the other hand, are very supportive. One long-time college buddy, who happens to be filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, has a great deal of admiration for Sarno’s choice to resist American urban values.
Another friend puts things into a much clearer, more holistic perspective. She’s a sort of New Age expert of some kind, though Obert chooses not to dive too deeply into what it is she practices. One of her weightiest comments is that Sarno’s true happiness with the Bayaka comes from a sense of peace, and of solitude. Sarno told her, not too long after he arrived in the CAR, that the language barrier actually made him feel calmer. Here he was, surrounded by a musical people and yet totally alone. Obert highlights this, often showing Sarno at work in a small shack late at night, listening to Renaissance church music that blends beautifully into the jungle silence.
In a way, however, this interpretation of his quest for peace is a form of colonial negation. He is not alone, he is surrounded by the Bayaka. And not only are they real people, but their society is in a state of flux. In part, this is because of Sarno’s presence rather than in spite of it. He’s given great responsibility by the community, who expect him to procure medicines and other supplies. Obert does not shy away from Sarno’s conflicted emotions, on the one hand devoted to the survival of Bayaka tradition but on the other facing major financial problems. Song from the Forest contains many scenes of direct thematic confrontation, as its troubled protagonist tries to navigate the realities of contemporary Africa with his dreams of an older way of life.
This is what elevates Song from the Forest to a higher level of artistic wisdom. Obert subtly points to the awkwardness of Sarno’s position, attracted to these tensions. He taps into a wider range of voices, including the counterpoint testimony of Bayaka women, confused members of Sarno’s American family, and all of the inevitably curious bystanders they meet along the way. This kind of polyphony is crucial because the subject of the film is not Sarno so much as it is Sarno’s dream. Obert’s quiet images of his leading man in both wooded and concrete jungles are gorgeous, but so are his portraits of those ambivalent souls around him, especially those willing to speak.
The 21st century has not been kind to the Bayaka. Their traditions are dying and they have not been replaced by much opportunity. Obert is clear about this and does not undercut the realities that Sarno is trying to share with the world. Yet at the same time, Song of the Forest is an attempt to reach even further. Sarno seems to feel as if the Bayaka have lost the beauty of their older, simpler ways. The crucial question is this: Is it their innocence that has been lost, or that of the young Sarno, bewildered by the charm of a society he had not yet come to understand? Obert’s triumph is in his musical, thoughtful presentation of this ambiguity.