At the beginning, we can see a bald-headed white man in heavenly images as he cautiously moves barefoot through the steaming jungle. The camera fixes onto the back of his head. This is overlaid with strangely familiar singing, the music of a primitive people. Then, with the music continuing, the director cuts to the street canyons of a megacity, a stone desert of concrete, glass and asphalt. One cut further takes us back to the jungle.
Flashback. In 1985, while living in Holland and after a failed marriage, a young white American by the name of Louis Sarno (born in 1954) hears a BBC radio broadcast. Part of the programme was a recording of mysterious songs that electrify the young musicologist. He researched. The music came from the pygmies, a group of peoples living in the jungles of Central Africa. With his last 500 dollars he bought a one-way ticket to Bangui. From there he travelled into the jungle. He found the Bayaka tribe. He stayed there, listening to their songs, studying their music and recording many hundred hours for posterity. He fell ill several times, surviving malaria, typhoid and leprosy, fell in love with a woman who was two heads shorter than him, and fathered a son with her. When the film-maker Michael Obert heard this story, he decided to make a film about his life.
Today, 29 years later, Louis Sarno is a full member of this community and the jungle is his home. The Bayaka introduced him to their music, and in return they demanded his life. “I think that’s a fair exchange,” Louis Sarno told us in the film. At the time the film was made, Samedi, his now 13-year-old son, was preparing to go on a journey with Louis to his father’s homeland. It is a story within the story of the film. It becomes a journey to a world with huge cultural and technological differences, a confrontation between jungle dwellers and the big city. Together they meet family and old friends, including one friend called Jim Jarmusch. Borne along by the contrast between the rain forest and urban America, a fascinating soundtrack of songs from the Renaissance and the music of the Bayaka, and the calm, intimate images of the film, quiet stories are woven into a moving portrait of an extraordinary man. A modern epic between giant trees of the jungle and skyscrapers.
Song From The Forest does not feed a longing for Africa, rather it creates a surprisingly fresh, moving synthesis. The journey does not go according to plan. It is not Samedi but his father who is overwhelmed by the harsh lights and the noise of the city. Right from the start, a parallel montage links the two worlds with each other. The silently observing film-maker cuts in a way that makes associations, switches again and again to the jungle and thus creates links. His camera throws light on the problems of the Bayaka, who suffer from the clearing of their forests and are discriminated against in Central Africa. We watch a film about the love of music, of nature, of the world; a love between a father and son as well as a film about the state of this world and about some of the major issues at the beginning of the 21st century – about homeland, identity, estrangement, about people’s cultures and about globalisation. Very beautifully made.
Script and direction: Michael Obert
With: Luis Sarno, Jim Jarmusch
Production: Tondowski Films
Original language English
Subtitles German, French