Song From the Forest: IDFA Review

Song From the Forest - H - 2013
Quietly resonant documentary on an unusual father/son relationship finds fresh notes among familiar ethographic themes.  

Ethno-musicologist Louis Sarno and his son Samedi feature in Michael Obert's German documentary, world-premiering in competition at the Amsterdam festival.

Alternating between the urban jungle of Manhattan and the rain-forest of Africa with metronomic aplomb, award-winning German journalist and author Michael Obert effects an belated, auspicious transition to film-making with Song From the Forest. An early buzz-title in the main competition section of Amsterdam's documentary showcase IDFA, this likeably modest study of veteran, well-traveled American musicologist Louis Sarno will go on to a busy festival and small-screen career and looks a viable candidate for arthouse Stateside distribution, not just in NYC.

A longtime close friend/mentor of Jim Jarmusch, who appears in a handful of scenes, Sarno has spent decades living in the Central African Republic recording the fast-disappearing musical traditions of remote forest tribes. Sarno's immersion in these cultures is such that he's in effect become a member of one such people, the Bayaka. While usually referred to as 'pygmies,' the Bayaka we see appear only a little below average height.

Sarno's relationship with a local woman has produced a child, Samedi, who at the age of 13 is taken by his father to meet his family in the United States. Audiences expecting the lad to deliver illuminating insights on the differences between these two diametrically opposite places are in for disappointment. Samedi, who we're told is illiterate and who speaks no English, generally seems glumly bemused by what he experiences. And so it's a surprise when Obert finally gets him to open up in such articulate, perceptive and practical-minded fashion about what he expected to gain from his Stateside sojourn.

Indeed, while there's no shortage of talk in Song From the Forest (titled after Sarno's 1993 book) some of which veers towards the 'New Age' mystical end of the spectrum, the film mainly operates in terms of striking images and aural impressions. Siri Klug's cinematography generally presents Manhattan in terms of its buildings, huge blocky structures which dwarf all else. In the Yandoumbe region, however, it's people who predominate, their lives explicitly presented as being quite literally in tune with the places where they live, play and hunt. 

As befits a movie about a man whose life is dedicated to listening, particular attention is devoted to the crafting of intricate soundscapes: Marian Mentrup (Special Sound Editing), Timo Selengia (Location Sound) and Daniel Teige (Sound Design) are arguably the enterprise's unseen MVPs. Himself something of a globetrotter with a particular interest in African subjects, Obert may be a newcomer to cinema but his editor Wiebke Grundler has more than a decade of experience under her belt. The pair achieve a delicately seductive flow of scenes, cumulatively conveying the deep connection Sarno obviously feels with the Bayaka and their perilously endangered corner of the world. The soundtrack features numerous haunting extracts from Sarno's recordings from the 80s and 90s, exquisitely counterpointed with the heavenly Renaissance choral polyphony from which he draws inspiration and serenity.

Venue: International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Production company: Tondowski Films
Director/Screenwriter: Michael Obert
Producers: Alexandre Tondowski, Ira Tondowski
Editor: Wiebke Grundler
Director of photography: Siri Klug
Sales: Deckert Distribution, Leipzig
No MPAA rating, 96 minutes