Judge Gordon Sullivan discovers some films are ruined by story.
A new African adventure.
Appreciation and exploitation so often go hand in hand. So much of the great art of the twentieth century—from Picasso's cubist masterpieces, to Pound's Cantos, to jazz and funk records—exists because of an encounter between a white, Western dude and the indigenous, non-white people of another continent (usually Africa). Whether it's the "flatness" of so-called "primitive" painting or the intense polyrhythms of "tribal" drums, the cultural crossover between Africa and the West has been a tremendous influence on our culture. Sadly, the compensation for such exchange has almost always sided with white folk, and charges of exploitation have dogged those with an interest in non-Western music: just ask Paul Simon and David Byrne. Oka! tries to tell a story of one man's attempts to record a mythical African instrument, but it too often succumbs to easy stereotypes.
Based on a true story, Louis Sarno (Kris Marshall, Love Actually) is an ethnomusicologist who came to prominence with his recording of the Bayaka pygmies in Africa. When the film opens, he's living in New Jersey with his mother, dreaming of going back to Africa to find an instrument that may or may not exist. Though he risks his health in returning, Sarno goes back to the pygmy tribe and begins a journey of love and music that explores the precarious position of the indigenous peoples of Africa.
There is an active, vocal debate in the world of popular culture about how and why to preserve evidence of indigenous peoples. Since any observation necessarily changes the behavior of anything observed, any recordings risk fundamentally altering centuries-old rituals. Moreover, the question of accuracy always lurks in the background. Can music intended always and only to be played live for specific events ever really be represented by a static musical recording made with portable equipment in a jungle?
I would have had a lot more respect for Oka! (which means "listen" in the dialect of the pygmies) if it had attempted to in some way acknowledge the tremendous difficulties and intellectual struggles that any anthropological enterprise deals with. Instead, Oka! goes for a magical realism that simply reinforces all the stereotypes we've come to associate with centuries of colonial involvement in Africa. Sarno is the white savior out to document the innocent beauty of the African people. He arrives in Africa as if by magic, and the plot of his involvement with one of the women of the tribe feels like trite romance (though apparently it is also based in fact). Even the subplots involving tension between different indigenous groups and the pressures to "develop" the pygmy land feel like yet another opportunity for Sarno to triumph.
However, just when I'm ready to write off Oka! as another nonsense story of a white dude exploring Africa, I notice just how freakin' gorgeous everything about the film is. The landscapes are captured with attention both to wide shots of the landscape and close-ups of the flora and fauna. Director Lavinia Currier also shoots faces beautifully. Before we know who any of the pygmy characters are we know their faces, their skin tones, the way they dress. Even Kris Marshall's white face does not look out of place, as everyone is made equal by the beautiful light that Currier captures in the African landscape. Turn off the sound, ignore the story, and marvel at a gorgeously shot film that startles with the vibrancy of its images.
Of course, if you turn off the sound, you risk missing out on the film's excellent music. Sarno studies music for a living, and so there are plenty of opportunities to hear the instruments and rhythms indigenous to Africa. I admit a long-held affection for African music (probably borne of an early encounter with Simon's Graceland record), and I have more familiarity than the average music fans with ethnographic musical recordings. The ones featured in the film are some of my favorite. They sound at once familiar and exotic, similar to other indigenous music but with a flavor that demonstrates why Sarno became enchanted with the music in the first place.
Oka! (Blu-ray), luckily, does justice to both the beauty of the film's music and images. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded image is gorgeous throughout. Color saturation is mostly spot-on, with the lush greens of the landscape perfect, and skin tones kept accurate as well. Detail is also excellent, with plenty of detail in both the leaves of the forest and the subtle shades in closeups. Black levels are also fine, while digital manipulation and compression artefacts aren't a problem. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is similarly excellent. Clarity is top-notch, with plenty of dynamic range for both dialogue and music. Directionality is good, with the film's numerous spoken languages coming through clearly. Subtitles are included as well. The set's lone extra is the film's trailer.
Oka! is a problematic exploration of ethnomusicology's love affair with African music; it leans a little too heavily on its white protagonist, lionizing the real-life Sarno excessively. However, as a document of African music and landscape, it's a gorgeously put-together film that can be appreciated purely for its sensory merits. The lack of extras on the Oka! (Blu-ray) is disappointing, but the audiovisual quality makes it worth a rental for anyone interested in the music of Africa.
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