SXSW Film Review – Song from the Forest
Song from the Forest
Michael Obert’s documentary Song from the Forest investigates the relationship between man and his environment. It seeks to find the meaning behind modern conceptions of art, commerce and civilizations through the lens of an objective camera, showing us only snip-bits and snap shots of the peculiar living situation of the documentary’s subject. Obert never judges or exoticizes the protagonist, Louis Sarno, but depicts his journey and his everyday observations about life, beauty, and minimalist living as a wise man’s burden, weighing him down slowly as he carries on his modest life.
Having lived the better part of 25 years in the Central African jungles in a native BaAka village, Sarno’s only connection back to New York, where he originates, is through the BaAkan songs that he records live as a participant. Before uprooting his life and ultimately deciding to live full time with the people in which he studies, Louis was just a college grad looking for shred of authenticity, as best exemplified in the jungle music of his research. After eventually finding what he was looking for, he soon realized that his life was better served in Africa where he could closely observe and record. This action of scholarly observation became full-on integration as Louis learned the BaAka’s language and their rituals, not only embracing their third world lifestyle, but feeling uncomfortable living outside of it.
Like a nature doc or a National Geographic research piece, this film, though grounded in a character study that is occasionally fascinating, has an educational tone that creates a bit of distance between the subject and the subject matter. Many scenes focus on the simple living of Louis in his hut as he writes, records, and collects, as well as many scenes of him socializing with BaAkan people and joking around with their children. What is made clear from these scenes that this community have both come to accept him as one of their own but are also somewhat curious about his white, American heritage. This, juxtaposed with his voice over about the state of his living situation, including his economic hardships and his declining health, slowly builds into an overall thesis about the man—and subtextually the film–trapped in contradiction.
With a long first act that introduces us to the BaAkan people, their village, and the crux of Sarno’s research, the movie really begins to blossom once Sarno returns to New York, where meets with the people with whom is recordings have been requested—as well as indie film icon Jim Jarmusch, whose presence in this documentary is never fully contextualized. Making good on an old promise, Louis brings with him a young BaAkan boy named Samedi who has never been outside of his impoverished village, let alone walking down the busy streets of a major American metropolis. After visiting his friends and employers, Louis shows Semedi the city, not as an American native but as a tourist, taking him to the aquarium and buying him toys and candy, even though the boy expresses more interest in bringing home tools, clothing and guns for his family back home.
It is this exact relationship Louis has with the BaAkans that expresses the underlying tension outside of the purpose of this documentary. Sarnos and Obert covertly raise issues of poverty, poaching, and the industrial domination that threatens the BaAkan way of life, and much of the film advocates awareness for the privileged white audience this movie was intended to be seen by. But, with no disrespect to those specific causes, I found myself much more interested in the post-colonial discourse the movie has with itself.
We are made to sympathize with a man who claims to feel more comfortable living in wilds of Africa than he does in America, where he is from, but when he comes back with somebody else from the BaAkan tribe, he can only seem to curate the city in the most one dimensional of ways. When Semedi tells him that he wants to study in America and marry a lovely white woman, Sarno tells him that he will first have to learn to read and write English, though never suggests to teach the boy those things himself.
Song from the Forest is edited in such a way that we are only getting a side-view glance of these events and these characters, so it is unfair to assume that Louis Sarno’s relationship with his long-adopted environment is disingenuous, and perhaps he and this director choose to represent this situation in a specific way, so as not to let the character overwhelm the political context of the story. Intentional or not, it is Sarno’s inner complexity that helps breaks the film from it’s dry austerity.