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A stranger in his old world

October 20, 2014
tags:#Central African Republic, #Pygmies, #Song from the forest, #Survival
located:Central African Republic
by:Marc Hairapetian
American ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno´s journeys into the Congo (and back) is the subject of this extraordinary documentary by German filmmaker, journalist and book writer Michael Obert. It is also the story of discovering one the rarest and most remote musical traditions on earth - that of the Central African Republic´s Bayaka pigmies. In this fairplanet interview film critic Marc Hairapetian talks with Michael Obert about his first feature film „Song from the forest", forgotten paradises and the piegmies struggle for survival.

Marc Hairapetian: You have a degree in business administration but changed your work to be a journalist and book author who is travelling around the world to visit countries like Libanon or Iran but also undicsovered places. How did you become a filmmaker?

Michael Obert: I am a writer, a hunter and gatherer of stories who has spent the past 20 years traveling to the most remote corners of the Earth, to forgotten paradises as well as to war zones. „SONG FROM THE FOREST“ is my debut movie. I never planned to make a movie. It just happened to me. Like love happens to you.

Hairapetian: What is so fascinating for you to make a film of the Bayaka and their music in the Congo? Is Africa your favorite continent because you wrote before the bestseller „Regenzauber“ about your trip to Niger?

Obert: I was mesmerized by the beauty of the rainforest and fascinated by the Bayaka, especially by their music. Imagine the sounds of the jungle: birds, insects, frogs, the sound of rivers and riverines, of myriads of raindrops on the leaves, of the wind in the trees. Bayaka music originated as an imitation of the sounds of the rainforest. Louis Sarno says: „The rainforest is the orchestra, the Bayaka play the solo.“ It is a 24/7 performance and one of the most wonderful forms of music that I´ve ever heard.

Hairapetian: „Song from the Forrest“ is your first film. It looks like a documentary when you visit the land of the Bayaka. But is it just a documentary? The trip of Louis Sarno and his son to New York City had to be planned and organized. So is „Songs from the Forrest“ a mixture between feature program and feature film?

Obert: It is a documentry indeed- I don´t want to reveal too much of the story but Louis´ and Samedi´s journey heads towards a role reversal. In the beginning the father wants to show the world to his son -- in the end it is the son who shows the world to his father. Even in a fictional screenplay you couldn´t have written this better!

Hairapetian: The music of the Bayaka is very old – is this the reason that you combined it with Renaissance music?

Obert: The music that we used is the favorite classical music of Louis Sarno and it is composed by William Byrd. He played it for me in the rainforest when we first met. It blew me away, this old religious European music in the middle of the African rainforest. 

So when we started editing we said, let´s forget about dramaturgy and shift to lithurgy. We took William Byrd´s polyphonic "Mass for Four Voices", Louis´ favorite piece, and choose images of our footage that we thought would fit to the different stages of this mass. This is how we started. The movie celebrates a mass. I like the idea that it worshipps the beauty of nature, the beauty of the world. 

Hairapetian: How difficult was the shooting in rain forrest when you have for example no electricity like in our „civilized“ world? (For example there is a scene in the film when the M´Baka, another congolse tribe, say in the film „Lets act really tough for these white guys who are shooting us“... Nobody wanted to kill you like Klaus Kinski in „Fitzcaraldo“?

Obert: In the beginning I thought the major challenges of the whole shoot would be the harsh conditions in the African rainforest in which we would have to live and work for almost five weeks: the density of the vegetation, the humidity, 650 kilos of equipment, no electricity, no running water, poisonous snakes and spiders and forest elephants going berserk. We wouldn´t have been able to succeed without the engaged help of the Bayaka. They really wanted to give us something!

In the end however, the most difficult thing wasn´t to shoot in the jungle but to deal with Louis´ deep culture shock when he came to the US. He felt like a stranger in his old world. It was deeply saddening for me and I often had to leave the camera behind and turn from filmmaker to just a human being, a friend.

Hairapetian: Do you think the Bayaka can also survive the next 50 or 100 years in the rain forrest or „modern live“ will also catch them?

Obert: The Bayaka pygmies, a tribe of hunters and gatherers, are struggling for survival. The rainforest is rapidly shrinking, poachers with guns empty Bayaka´s last remaining hunting grounds, deadly deseases are spreading. Louis takes care of his community as much as he can. 

Hairapetian: Is it true that 50 percent of the proceeds from the film that comes to the production company will go directly back supporting the Bayakas?

Obert: Louis fights a lonesome fight. This is why we, the filmmakers of „SONG FROM THE FOREST“, have initiated the BAYAKA PROJECT to support Louis and the Bayaka in their struggle for physical and cultural survival. The project is based on our profound knowledge of the situation in the area and on our personal friendship with many Bayaka as a result of over four years of work with them. The BAYAKA PROJECT considers itself as an intermediate between people from all over the world who want to help the Bayaka and the community itself. If you want to support the Bayaka please check our movie´s website:

Hairapetian: Did you keep your promise to go back to Louis and the Bayaka and show them your film? Or when do plan to visit them again?

Obert: I promised Louis and the Bayaka that I would come back and show them the movie. The recently erupted civil war in the Central African Republic poses a tough problem. Finances are also an issue. But I am working on it. I promised, and promisses have to be kept. Louis and Samedi were in Germany for the release though. 

Hairapetian: Do you have after winning awards for „Song from the Forrest“ a next film project or you like to focus on writing books?

Obert: Both. There are so many exciting subjects out there that I have collected in more then 20 years of traveling along the "edges of the world", in forgotten paradises as well as in war zones. 

If you wish to support the Bayaka:

Marc Hairapetian is since his 16th living year editor of the film-, theatre-, music-, literature and audio drama magazine SPIRIT – EIN LÄCHELN IM STURM which is celebrating its 30th anniversary now. He is also working for magazines like Spiegel Online or Newspapers like Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

Article written by:
Marc Hairapetian
Central African Republic
© Tondowski Films
© Tondowski Films
© Tondowski Films
© Tondowski Films
© Tondowski Films
© Tondowski Films
© Tondowski Films