My interest in movies has led me to read a number of books on film analysis and screenwriting and other related topics. One of the points that these books keep hammering home is that a film needs to have conflict in pretty much every scene in order to stay interesting. Another is that all of the story lines need to connect back somehow to the main plot. Oka! is kind of an enigma for me because it fails at both of these and yet it still managed to hold my attention.
Larry Whitman (played by Kris Marshall) is a tall, gaunt, white man, and yet he has managed to become the world’s leading expert on the music of the Bayaka tribe of Pygmies in the Central African Republic. Despite his standing head and shoulders and chest above the Bayaka people, and despite the notable difference in skin color, he has managed to earn their trust over the years and has been accepted as a kind of unofficial member of their tribe. But he’s still an American and during his most recent trip home, he began to notice health problems. His doctor told him his liver was pretty much gone and he was in pretty desperate need of a transplant, and that his traveling days were over. But Larry disagreed, and was intent on going back at least one more time. He’d managed to record a lot of different samples of Bayaka music, but one extremely rare instrument, the molimo, managed to elude him. Some say the molimo doesn’t even exist, but Larry was going to prove them wrong.
Before long, Larry finds himself back in Africa and is surprised to learn that much has changed. The Bayaka tribe, which had primarily lived deep in the forest, was now in a village with the Bantu people who were not particularly kind to the Bayaka. In particular, the Bantu mayor Bassoun loved to exert his power and introduce bureaucracy into everything, even going so far as to require the Bayaka people to obtain a permit in order to leave the village and enter the forest. Westerners had come in and set up a sawmill, eliminating large swaths of forest and creating all kinds of noise. If the molimo does exist, then it’s certainly not going to be found anywhere near this urbanized nightmare.
This film is based on a true story, which probably explains why it is simply a recounting of events and not so much a classic narrative. Larry’s quest is to ultimately reconnect with the Bayaka and find the molimo, but there are some half-baked side stories like Bassoun’s opposition at every turn which ultimately has no effect at all because Larry and the Bayaka simply ignore him. And there’s also a completely baffling subplot about Mr. Yi, a Chinese businessman who wants to shoot an elephant, which only briefly intersects with the story of Larry and the Bayaka, and not in any meaningful way.
I suppose on the larger scale, there is conflict of the new world versus the old and technology versus tradition, but while it is present it doesn’t really factor into the outcome. Larry does occasionally deal with health issues, and with not completely fitting in with the tribe, and not being as adept as the natives at life in the forest, but these too are all inconsequential. What’s left is just a series of things that happened to the people in the story and an ending that’s a little confusing. And yet somehow I still kind of enjoyed it.