Sunday, August 10, 2014


Lots of local colour in a kind of motion picture National Geographic story. Except it isn't local colour, it's the movie. In the 1980s Louis Sarno followed music that compelled him from his comfortable American setting to the rainforests of the Central African Republic. Over the years he made thousands of recordings of the local music and found himself assimilating to the community he stayed in. He married locally and is raising a son. Having promised to take Samedi to see America, the subsistence-incomed Louis does so, also making a journey to resample his birthplace. On his return to the village he sees through freshly worldly eyes how the way of the world beyond the forest has infiltrated leaving questions that feature the word when rather than how.

This quietly angry film presents its tableaux of hand to mouth life ancient style without comment. Sarno's narration and to-camera interviews provide the texture. When this strongly gentle man recalls a musical flourish signature to a particular musician we know without him telling us that but for any recordings it is an extinct sound. That is part of the cycle.

What isn't part of it is the edge of the globalised one visiting pit and pendulum-like into this place and its life. Sarno might have seemed a diverting but soft subject if it were not his decision as part of his pursuit of this music to adopt its lifestyle and sacrifice the comforts and potential advancement of middle class American life. Each new scene from his village milieu reminds us of that and allows us a sliver of understanding as to why Sarno came to prefer this life.

But this film is about travel between two worlds and the scenes from America are very telling. Sarno clocks back into Western life naturally if a little hestitantly. His young son Samedi proves far less awed by the experience than Sarno feared, liking the tall buildings and the toys, but he voices thoughts both practical and observant. He is concerned that the light sabres and wind up cars he will take back to the Village are of less value there than things that would last longer. There is no regret following this brief tour to Babylon on their return to the village but Sarno is given opportunity to recognise the encroachment into his village of the globalisation he thought he had evaded.

Unlike many two-worlds documentaries that take the differences between means of living as opportunities to extol the primal and the primitive over the sophisticated and wasteful, Song from the Forest allows its audience scope to come to its own conclusions. It helps that the magnetic figure of Sarno has a worldly serenity to marvel at from the comfort of a cinema. But the determination of the filmmakers to bring the weight of his decision to adopt an alien lifestyle and reject an easy one like a bronze age mystic pays off in easy but serious doses. The opening pans of light through columns of smoke in the trees (campfires not bushfires) set to Rennaisance era choral music are as beautiful as informative and presage the final moments of a spoken legend mixed with the sounds of urban traffic. There's no lecture here but there is, perhaps more scarily, an opportunity to think for ourselves.

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