March 12, 2012

Return to the Heart of Darkness

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Over a century has passed since Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness. Wars have come and gone, technology has advanced at an unbelievable rate and Western culture at large has undergone a radical transformation. A reasonable person might assume that the West has also progressed beyond Conrad’s white-man-knows-best narrative. Sadly, this is not the case. Somehow, in 2012, we’re still buying into reductive colonial views of the African continent. Whether it’s Kony 2012’s oversimplified account of Ugandan politics or American discomfort with the Arab Spring, the Western world clearly has a bad case of postcolonial paternalism. This is not to say that Westerners can’t make positive changes in poverty-stricken countries, but we need to stop using Africa and its people as a backdrop for the white man’s quest for self-discovery and knowledge. And yet Lavinia Currier’s latest film Oka!,does exactly that.Based on a memoir by Louis Sarno, Oka! seeks to portray the idyllic coexistence of an American academic and the pygmy people that he studies. Instead, we get an exasperatingly messianic scholar who overshadows a fascinating culture. Squandering the beauty of the landscape and the culture of the Bayaka people, Oka! ultimately defeats itself with fragmented plotlines and a stifling sense of self-importance.Despite a failing liver, Larry (Kris Marshall),  a tedious ethnomusicologist form New Jersey,  returns to Central Africa to live with the Bayaka people whose music has long entranced him. Seeking the mythical molimo, “the holy grail of pygmy music,” he finds his forest-dwelling friends threatened by a logging company and a pair of classic villains. Parading through the jungle armed with fancy recording equipment and almost no personality, the lanky protagonist is less than compelling. While his sincerity is initially endearing, it soon becomes a far more appropriative sense of superiority. At one point, he tells a pair of tourists he is from the Bayaka village and sneers when they ask him if he is a member of the Peace Corps.Oka!, however, is not all bad. The music is undeniably enthralling. While Larry may bore the audience within the first ten minutes, we can certainly understand why he’s so drawn to the pygmies. Their passionate music and vibrant humor are testament to their engaging culture, and yet Currier’s Kurtzian tale allows these people to serve as little more than scenery for Larry’s emotional and intellectual journey. In fact, Sataka — a Bayaka mystical joker and by far the best-written and -acted character — is the only pygmy whose personality and motives we really get to know. The film begs us to marvel at Larry’s ability to speak the Bayaka language, urges us to laugh at the other Westerners who do not understand the culture and compels us to acknowledge his nobility of spirit. Rarely do we see the Bayakas on their own terms; in this film, their only purpose is to prop up the righteous music scholar. While Oka! provides an excellent showcase of Bayaka music, this alone cannot overcome its many other shortcomings.Postcolonial critiques aside, Oka! suffocates itself in a web of fragmented story arcs and its own sense of self-wonder. About an hour in, the plot makes a major detour as Larry, Sataka and the rest of the carefree Bayakas frolic in the forest. While it’s an appealing and pleasant image, the filmmakers seem to be so enamored with the setting and subject material that all sense of story is lost. The plot structure is barely elucidated through a series of hackneyed plot points and unoriginal characters. From the seductive “exotic” girl to the greedy corporate pig, Oka!’s cast of characters is far from inventive. In the end, Oka! is not uninteresting. In fact, for the majority of the film, the audience remains absorbed by — if not the protagonist or the muddled plot — the cultural and cinematographic landscape. The film even has a few nuances, such as the recurring opposing forces of industrial noise and musical sound. Ultimately, however,  Oka! finds itself choking on a lethal blend of clichéd plot points, uneven storylines and the white man’s burden that Joseph Conrad knew so well. So, in many ways, Oka! seems like a rough draft. Perhaps the screenwriters needed a few extra rounds of workshop or a lesson in Western privilege. Either way, Oka! remains a frustrating jumble of themes and ideas that never crystallizes into the gripping and poignant tale it had the potential to be.

Original Author: Gina Cargas