Ron Deutsch was recently in Austin, TX, reporting for Afropop Worldwide from SXSW 2014. While there, Deutsch interviewed documentary filmmakers Michael Obert and Alex Tondowski, who were in town to promote their new film, Song From the Forest, about Louis Sarno’s life among the Bayaka forest people of the Central African Republic.
When Michael Obert walked into the rain forest of the Central African Republic in 2009, he wasn’t looking for a story. And he certainly wasn’t looking to make a movie. The now 48-year-old German journalist and author was already on assignment on the edge of the forest to write about a rain conservation project run by the World Wildlife Fund. The researchers had just given him a briefing on the project and as they were leaving the room, one of them casually mentioned to Obert that there was this American who lived deep in the rainforest among the Bayaka, a nomadic forager tribe.
“So, I’m like, ‘Wow, a white American said to be living with a hunter-gatherer tribe in the rain forest… for 25 years? I have to find this guy,’” Obert recalled.
Obert was no stranger then to Africa himself. He has been covering the Middle East and Africa for over two decades, writing for both news and travel magazines in Germany and the rest of Europe. His account of a seven-month journey down the Niger River in 2003 was published by National Geographic Editions. He is considered to be one of today’s best travel writers.
So Obert was determined to find this guy, just to meet and find out what he’s all about. He took his photographer and two Bayaka guides and headed into the jungle. They traveled through the dense rainforest, following an elephant track, hoping to find where the Bayaka were currently encamped.
“Then, after an hour or two,” Obert said, “the dense vegetation opened up. The sun came shining through this clearing and I saw these beehive huts. You know, the huts you see with bent branches and leaves. And the Bayaka were there, streaming towards me from all directions with their spears, and their sharpened teeth, and these facial tattoos. They started pulling at my T-shirt and shouting at me in their language.
“I was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer mass of people. Maybe 200 of them. It was super loud. There’s flies, there’s hunted animals on the ground–it was like going like a couple of thousand years back in time. We all used to be hunter-gatherers, right? So it was really intense. I had never met a Pygmy tribe before.” He then noted, “You know, they are pretty small, but they are not dwarves. Also, Bayaka is the more correct way to refer to them because ‘pygmy’ is a kind of pejorative.”
“And then all of a sudden, the noise is cut off. It was like some Hollywood movie scene. The noise was cut off and they opened up and I saw a little alley. And at the end of the alley, I see this white guy coming out of the underbrush. He has two naked Bayaka babies, one in each arm. And this John Waters mustache.” Obert said it was very much like the scene in Apocalypse Now when we first meet Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. “He came through the alley and gave the Bayaka babies away to their moms, and he stood there in front of me, half-naked, only wearing shorts, barefoot, bare belly. He comes towards me and stands in front of me with his arms crossed, which was basically saying by that stance, ‘What the hell are you doing here? You’ve come unannounced.’”
The next thing Obert did was not probably the first thing you or I might do if perchance we found ourselves in such a situation. But then Obert seems to be a man who seeks out such situations. He is also a man who, when you first meet him, you have two distinct thoughts about him which seem disparate at first, but quickly coalesce. When you look at his face, he strikes you as a man who’s seen deeply into the harsh world we inhabit. But then when you look into his eyes, you see the twinkling gaze of a kid looking back at you. It’s a duality one certainly needs to have to keep one’s sanity at times in Africa, or anywhere for that matter.
“I have this intuition very often,” he said, “Even when somebody threatens me with a gun, or something strange happens, I tend to just grab the hand of the person. So I grabbed his hand. That’s what I did. And we just stood there, with our hands like this, surrounded by the Bakaya people. Everyone is staring at us with dead silence. It was like this moment where anything could happen. And then it really clicked. We stood there and shook hands and he said, ‘OK, come.’”
The man Obert had just met was Louis Sarno. Sarno, 59, grew up in a middle-class home far away from Africa–in New Jersey. As a youngster, Sarno fell in love with classical music–Bach, Mahler, and Schubert–and dreamed of becoming a composer. He later spent time living in the Lower East Side of New York where he began a lifelong friendship with film director Jim Jarmusch. But then in the summer of 1979, Sarno went to live in Amsterdam and it was there his life would find its course.
“I was drawn to the heart of Africa by a song,” Sarno wrote on the Global Voice Foundation website. “Alone one evening… I switched on the radio in time to catch a program of traditional African mourning songs. Serendipity was in the air that night: A blank cassette happened to be in the radio/cassette player, and for the first time in my life I recorded a radio program. Afterwards, listening to that tape many times over, I grew obsessed by one song in particular–an Aka lament.”
The lament was sung in a polyphonic style, that is, with two or more voices singing simultaneous, but also seemingly independently from each other. And it wasn’t “serendipity in the air,” it was Afropop Worldwide‘s Georges Collinet, hosting his then-Voice of America show that night.
“In the end,” Sarno continued, “I succumbed to the inevitable and came to Africa to make my own recordings (more than 1,000 hours now), and I’ve been here ever since.” He struck a deal with the Bayaka whereby they would share their music with him, but he had to live among them, as one of them. Sarno willingly accepted their terms and in 1993 chronicled his experiences in a book, also entitled Song from the Forest.
And as such things happen, Obert had read Sarno’s book when it first came out.
“It’s funny,” Obert said, “it’s one of the first books about Africa that I ever read. But I wasn’t aware that it was this guy. It then came together for me when we were sitting in his hut during that first encounter. We had like seven or eight hours of random talking in his hut until the following morning.”
So what did they talk about that first night?
“Well first, I didn’t know his story. He didn’t tell me it for some time. We just talked about music, the Lower East Side in the 1980s, the Ramones, philosophical questions about Buddhism, about the mining in the Eastern Congo, the problems in the Middle East. And these are things I write about, so I was pretty well informed. But he too was super-informed. You see, he has this little radio that’s constantly there. And Louis is a listener,” Obert explained. “You know, we all have different priorities of our senses, and for Louis it’s the ear first. I think he really absorbs everything he can get on BBC Africa. So he’s super-well informed. And then, in the morning, he said to me, ‘C’mon, we’re going for a hunt.’”
And a-hunting they went, along with 30-40 members of the tribe. Obert spent the next three or four days hunting and living among the Bayaka. Then returning from the hunt, he was welcomed back along with the others. But it was now time for him to turn back from this little side adventure.
“As a traveler, I’m used to the situation,” Obert admitted. “You say, ‘It’s wonderful. Thank you. Goodbye.’ And you may never see these people ever again in your life. But Louis said, ‘You know what? Give me your email address.’ And that was a funny moment, also, because here’s this guy in the middle of jungle asking me for my email. But ever other Saturday, he goes to the WWF scientific research lab and checks his email.”
Coming home to Berlin, Obert wrote up his story about the rainforest project, not even mentioning his adventure with Louis Sarno. “I didn’t think of it as a story then,” Obert said, “just as something interesting that happened along the way.”
Then, about five months later, out of the blue, Obert received an email from Sarno. “There were like just three lines, ‘Hi, Michael. My mother sent me a ticket. Arrival JFK,” and the information of his arrival, and would I like to hook up with him then and there.”
Obert called in a photographer, pitched the story to a German magazine, and off he went to America.
“The photographer stayed three or four days to take shots, and I stayed two weeks with Louis,” he recalled. “He just came by himself then, because his mother wasn’t well. So I met his mother, his brothers, and Jim Jarmusch. So that’s when we came closer together. I could feel how uncomfortable he feels in the West and I was really intrigued by this internal conflict within him between cultures.”
Obert wrote up the story, and yet again moved on. Then about a year later, in 2011, Obert ran into his friend Alex Tondowski. Tondowski, 46, a half-French/half-British actor, had recently returned to Berlin after living and working in Hollywood for many years. He had now just set up a film production company in town with his wife.
When Tondowski heard the story about the strange white man in the jungle, he immediately exclaimed, “’Michael, this is a movie!’ And he said to me, “Yes, that sounds good. But I don’t make movies.’ So I said, ‘Now you are!’ And that’s how it started, nearly three years ago.”
Six months later, the two found themselves back in the jungle, this time with over 1400 pounds of film equipment.
“It was incredible,” Tondowski recalled, “but we had to move fast because Louis wanted to do this trip with his son Samedi, and we were not sure about Louis’ health either. His health is a subject he doesn’t want to discuss. But sometimes things just come together, and in this case it did.”
Sarno had made a promise to his Bayaka son, Samedi, that someday he would take him to see the other world which his father had come from. And so Sarno decided to take the boy, then just 10 years old, out of the Central African Republic jungle and to the concrete jungle of New York.
“For Samedi, this was an experience and an adventure. It was an initiation for him, from boyhood into adulthood,” Obert said.
The film begins in the jungle, but instead of jungle sounds or Bayaka polyphonic music, we hear Western music, specifically the 16th century polyphonic choral music of British composer William Byrd. Obert explained the idea of using this music came from his very first night with Sarno back in 2009, when after a couple of hours of chatting, Sarno turned and said he needed to play Obert something.
“So we’re sitting in the middle of the jungle, and he’s got this little battery-driven DVD player with two loudspeakers,” Obert recalled. “He put in a CD and played me this 16th century choral music. It gave me goosebumps in that moment. Here you have all the cicadas, the night birds, the night animals, the sounds of the rain forest, and then he puts on this music. I had never heard it and didn’t know William Byrd. So when Alex said let’s try to do a movie of this, the first thing that came into my mind was this music. It was not an image, just this particular song that the film starts with.”
“This piece of music, you see, is a mass for four voices,” he continued. “In the beginning of the film edit, I said ‘Let’s forget about dramaturgy, and let’s go to liturgy.’ So it was clear we’d use the five pieces of the mass. Each piece stands for a spiritual context of the liturgy of the mass. There is the opening–the greeting of God, or in our case, it’s the greeting of nature. And we followed that path all the way to the end. We put certain scenes, fragments, and laid them in to follow the mass. We were just brainstorming as to which of our images would fit with each part of the mass. It was an experiment, but now this music Louis played for me is at the base of the whole construction of the film.”
Obert observed that when Sarno listens to music, he disappears into it. “His body is still there, but he’s–I don’t know–somewhere else,” Obert said. “He likes to say, ‘I’m tuning out. I’m good at tuning out.’ And then he’s gone. You can sit there and listen with him, but he is not there with you. For him, music is like a drug. And now I’m a big fan of this 16th century music. I even went to Naples to track down some of these 16th century composers, the remains of their music. I went to Oxford to research Byrd. There’s this beautiful thing about this spiritual music. I don’t know–it’s very pure. ”
But when the film changes locales, out of Africa and to New York, we hear the sounds of the forest.
“For me, it’s sort of this inner voice of Louis,” Obert continued. “There is something I observed when I first met him in the U.S.–Louis is constantly tapping his fingers or foot. There is an inner music constantly going on inside of him, or at least that was my reading of him. The way I think of it, is that Louis is on a constant trip and is constantly listening to music in his head. So I was always trying to get inside of him and figure out what kind of music he’s hearing. And once I had these moments myself, I thought maybe he’s listening to the polyphonic songs from the jungle while he’s walking through the middle of Lower East Side traffic. And then it was obvious to me that I would use this to take it outside of his head for the audience to hear.”
Obert said that, more than anything, the reason he was so drawn to tell Sarno’s story was because he views Sarno as almost his own alter-ego.
“You know, I’m 20 years on the road,” Obert said, “but Louis is on the road too, but he’s never come back. He very radically did what I’ve very often played with in my head–’How would it be if I just stayed here in Somalia? Or the Congo? Or even Austin?’ It’s a funny, interesting road and on the road you play a role, you experience, and you discover a place, but then I decide to go back. It’s my responsibility also, I believe, to share with my community what I have learned somewhere else, in my writing or through this film. So I wanted this inner conflict between the two worlds–Where do you belong? Where is home? What’s your constructed identity? What goes on inside of you when you go somewhere and then you come back? How do you see the world you come from when you come back from a trip? I wanted to create this conflict between the two worlds.
“So,” Obert continued, “he’s a mirror. He might also be the audience’s mirror too, in the sense that you look at him and maybe see your own longings, nostalgic feelings. Everyone sooner or later dreams of this moment where you walk out of your front door, close the door behind you, and you leave everything behind. Oh man, it’s so fantastic! And he did it! He didn’t go from New Jersey to New York City–he went all the way to the African rainforest and becomes this…. And everything is involved in this–the romanticism, the forest, the pure nature, the return to paradise. So he’s a mirror in that sense.
“But he’s also now a mirror when he comes back to the West. And Samedi, too, is a mirror, but in a different sense. When Louis comes back, he’s one of us, but sees our world with different eyes. It’s almost like an anthropological view of the world, you know. And that’s my own experience, also. When I come back from like six months in the Congo to Berlin, I see things very differently. Like, ‘Oh, this is a nice fountain. I have never seen this fountain even though it’s always there.’ I see my home as something fresh, critical, precise, clear–you have a distance. It’s like if you write a story for two years, you better take four weeks to put it away, then come back, read it fresh, and you then figure things out. It’s like that.
“I think Louis shows us how we are,” Obert said, “how we reflect on things and how we deal with things. He will say things like: ‘This is a strange world…. I feel like a holograph… I’m not a real person here… People do all these things for money and it doesn’t have any intrinsic importance to their lives.’ Stuff like that. Even the way he moves, the way he dresses – he’s out of sync with us in our world.”
But this world of ours is very rapidly closing in on the Bayaka.
“The Bayaka are one of the oldest African groups,” Obert noted. “And their forest is being lost. The forest is being cut down. There are barges coming in for bush meat, for ivory. You have all sorts of fatal diseases that are brought from the outside. So there is a heavy pressure on the forest, and through the pressure of the forest, the chances that Samedi’s kids will still go for traditional hunting in the rainforest is very slim. And on this journey we took him, Samedi has sort of seen his future. That, from the beginning, is very clear. You have two people, father and son–the father travels into his past, and Samedi travels to his future. Two people together traveling in different directions but to the same physical location. That’s clearly the case.
“And Samedi was completely comfortable there. He was not surprised at all by the buildings. He was completely relaxed after two or three days. He looked like the boy from next door, with his baseball cap. And yes, he wanted a real gun, not a toy one, because he’s a man now. And he has seen guns. No other Bayaka has a gun, they still hunt with nets. Only poachers have guns. So yeah, he’s a man now, and he wants a gun. He doesn’t want kids’ crap. He wants a gun because he has experienced in the rainforest that it’s a much more efficient way to hunt. And obviously, a much more destructive way to hunt. Now he came back to his people, and he’s the guardian of these stories he’s brought back to tell his friends. He just turned 15 recently and can easily father a son himself now.”
Since Obert and Tondowski returned from filming, life has become suddenly even more tenuous for Sarno and the Bayaka people.
“About a year ago,” Tondowski explained, “war broke out in the Central African Republic. What it means is that it’s very dangerous there. Everybody’s pulled out. All the European and American organizations and NGOs are out. Louis was encouraged to leave, but has not. He is the only white guy for 100 kilometers in any direction. He does have an email possibility. We’re getting about an email a month from him right now through his friend who has a lodge up there, a South African guy. But essentially, he is like the only white man in the CAR right now.”
Afropop Worldwide is working to get in touch with Louis Sarno and we hope to bring word from him directly in the near future, which we will bring to you here.
Song from the Forest is currently being screened at film festivals and hopes to have U.S. distribution shortly. You can find out more about the film and how you can help support the Bayaka at the film’s website. Tondowski noted that 50 percent of the film’s profits will go directly to the Bayaka. You can also keep up with news of Sarno and donate aid via the Global Voice Foundation.
Watch the trailer here: