There are moments in Song From the Forest where the documentary’s core narrative comes close to inducing groans: A white American travels to a rainforest in central Africa and finds a people (in this case, the Bayaka pygmies) whose pure culture and simple life connect him with the best part of himself, revealing to him the superficiality of his own culture.
The traveler is Louis Sarno, who has devoted himself to the Bayaka for over 25 years. He’s married to a Bayaka woman, and they have a thirteen-year-old son, Samedi. Sarno’s one-of-a-kind recordings of traditional Bayaka music document a culture that has already lost much to modernity, which pains him.
Song is filled with great beauty and moments of everyday life that show that director Michael Obert has a fine sense of the power of the quotidian: Naked toddlers dance in a puddle for applauding villagers; pre-teen boys cavort in the river and then talk smack on the banks. But Obert also slips in powerful critiques of Sarno with the lightest of touches — some so light they might be accidental.
As Sarno’s preparing to take Samedi to the States for the first time, his wife tells the camera that he’s never offered to take her, that she’s never met her mother-in-law. The camera holds on her face, inscrutable but speaking volumes. And for all his fears that Bayaka culture is endangered, Sarno has done nothing to prepare his son for the future. Samedi can’t speak English, and has the barest of education. Tensions arise once father and son are stateside, and the film’s open-ended ending is sobering and heartbreaking at once.