Director: Lavinia Currier
Starring: Kris Marshall, Isaach de Bankole, Will Yun Lee
On the surface, “Oka!” has a couple potential red flags that seemingly mark it as yet another tale of a white Westerner saving and/or bringing culture to the lives of black Africans. In reality, though, it’s about the inverse of that scenario, and director Lavinia Currier’s film sings with an unexpected humor and exuberance. Based on an unpublished memoir, “Last Thoughts Before Vanishing From the Face of the Earth,” by ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno, this is a unique and fascinating tale of cultural connection, and the elemental nature of various human curiosities that bind us together.
The antithesis in just about every conceivable way, shape and form of “Krippendorf’s Tribe” (and that’s a good thing, trust me), “Oka!” is a slightly fictionalized take on Sarno’s experiences in Central Africa with his adoptive family — the forest-dwelling Bayaka pygmies, most of whom stand under five feet tall. Diagnosed with cancer and disobeying a doctor’s orders not to travel, Larry Whitman (Kris Marshall) leaves his sickbed in New Jersey, summoned by an extra-sensory call from the Bayakan tribal leader. The thrust of Larry’s return is two-fold — to finally capture sonic evidence of the legendary Molimo, the last instrument left in his cultural chronicling of the Bayakan people’s uniquely syncopated music, and to help turn back the logging advances of an Asian developer, Mr. Yi (Will Yun Lee), who is working in concert with a duplicitous local politician, Mayor Bassoun (Isaach de Bankole).
Marshall (“Love, Actually”) has quietly expressive eyes to go with a vocal timbre that can match the best of Rainn Wilson’s blithe confusion and pinched disdain from “The Office.” This is a knockout role for him, and his interplay with the actual Bayaka people who comprise the rest of the cast is lively and engaging. A lot of times the mixing of professional actors with non-professional performers creates a sense of imbalance, but that is certainly not the case here.
A fascinating and whole-hearted film — its title translates as an exclamatory “listen” in the native Akka language — “Oka!” has an almost primal sense of connection. The movie benefits from cinematographer Conrad W. Hall’s keen eye for the natural physical beauty of the Congo River Basin, as well as the pygmies’ natural playfulness and collective charisma, and Currier’s deft sense of how they all fit together. The narrative proper is a bit unwieldy, and silly even, but the other elements are all so sincere and richly observed that the film never for a moment feels false or contrived. Nativist cinema comes home in this pleasant treat, a welcome visitor for arthouse fans and more generalized tales of human uplift alike.
Written by: Brent Simon