93 minutes, 2003, Caberoon / Central African Republic / Gabon Directors: Bassek ba Kobhio and Didier Ouénangaré In Diaka, French and Sango with English subtitles
ABOUT THE FILM
"This is a brave, dramatic film, relying on convincing performances from actual pygmies...The astounding effect achieved is reminiscent of the Canadian film Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner). Beautifully composed, the strength of this film is in its authenticity to place and the glimpse it provides into a hidden world."
"This beautifully made pic is a powerful African production, a fascinating excursion into a little-seen world. The film develops into an unusual journey of discovery. Impeccably made, with a high level of technical expertise."
"An admirable result for the first ever film from its country...Big box-office results at home are sadly unlikely: the single cinema in the Central African Republic has, apparently, closed down."
Le silence de la forêt is a film about the difficulty for even the most well-intentioned person to know and respect another culture. In this case, the problem is so acute that there is even heated debate over what to call that 'other.' The subtitles in the film use the familiar word 'pygmies,' a relatively pejorative European term; the Bantu or villagers' expression for the same group, Babingas, carries similar negative connotations. These highly specialized, tropical rainforest hunter-gatherers should perhaps be called by their own ethnonym, Aka, MoAka (sing.) and BaAka (pl.)
'Pygmies' were first introduced to a wide Western reading public through the now controversial, romanticized account of Colin Turnbull, The Forest People (1961). This film is based on the similarly sentimental novel Le silence de la forêt by Etienne Goyemide. The film stars Eriq Ebouaney, well-known from playing Lumumba in the film of the same name, and is scored by Manu Dibango, the Cameroonian music legend. The fact that this film is the first to focus on the exploitation and racism between more modern Africans and an autochthonous people, so ironically reminiscent of the attitudes of European colonists towards Africans, makes it even more unusual and fascinating.
The film's hero Gonaba, unlike many Africans educated in Europe, decides to return to his homeland of the Central African Republic, full of ideals for fulfilling the promises of independence. The film fast forwards ten years and we find a wiser but more disillusioned Gonaba who realizes he has accomplished nothing. If anything he has become just another parasitical bureaucrat entitled to his own servant, comfortable house and sexual dalliances. In the novel, he is more critically portrayed although he is patterned after the author, a tireless educational reformer in the Central African Republic who recently died of HIV-AIDS.
Gonaba's dissatisfaction comes to a head at an Independence Day celebration where he scornfully comments there is nothing to celebrate but corruption. He refuses to wear a European suit which he feels just mimics their colonial predecessors. At the festivities there is a dance performed by some BaAka during which one of the guests contemptuously throws food for them to scramble over like dogs. The Prefect later refers to them as animals and calls them tourist attractions.
The next day on a visit to a rural school, Gonaba is again confronted by his ineffectualness. Rather than talk about education he must settle conflicts about the sexual misconduct of teachers with their students. The village chief has an Aka 'slave' named Manga, whom he mistreats, raising Gonaba's indignation once again. He reminds Manga that he is a citizen and that all people are equal as the founder of the Central African Republic, Barthélemy Boganda, preached . (The subtitles refer to Manga as a 'slave' but he might better be called a 'client' of a 'patron.') In any case Gonaba 'buys' him from the chief and convinces Manga to take him to his village where Gonaba hopes to meet some people so 'primitive' that they still have their integrity in tact. At the same time he can educate them with what he takes for granted as the universal wisdom of the Enlightenment.
Deserted by Manga who knows that the real path to power lies in a military career, Gonaba stumbles into a net trap and arrives at the village unconscious. Restored to health with traditional medicines, his 'civilizing mission' encounters a notable lack of enthusiasm from the BaAka. They can see no point in learning to read and write French; they already have the knowledge they need to be successful rainforest hunter-gatherers. Gonaba further flouts local custom by building his well-ventilated rectangular (not round) house on sacred land - exhibiting, the same disrespect for sacred soil that alienates the hero of Bassek ba Kobhio's earlier film Sango Malo from the villagers he is trying to liberate.
Gonaba does manage to meet, marry and have a child with a young MoAka, named Kali. Despite unpromising omens, he and the other men of the tribe set out on his initiation ritual, an elephant hunt. A ferocious storm strikes and Kali is fatally wounded when a trees falls on her. Ironically her last word is the one French expression she has learned, bouche, as she asks Gonaba for a final kiss. The villagers condemn Gonaba to death by tying him to a tree for wild beasts to eat; he is helped to escape and the film ends with his return to the city. As the sounds of urban life rise on the soundtrack, he says he will never forget 'le silence de la fôret.'
It would be a mistake to equate the naiveté of the protagonist with the attitude of the two filmmakers. Bassek ba Kobhio's former films, Sango Malo and Le grand Blanc de Lambaréné both center on well-intentioned characters, the teacher Malo and Albert Schweitzer respectively, who are partially thwarted in their missions by their own sense of cultural superiority. This film shows how Gonaba's attraction to Rousseau's concept of the 'noble savage' masks a deeply embedded cultural condescension. There is no noble savage, only different cultures adapted to their own environments with more or less success; modernism might be said to be a culture whose environment is predominantly man (and woman) made.
In the course of the film we are told the Aka creation myth. Rude and disobedient, the Great Spirit exiled the BaAka to the forest. Their playmates, the chimpanzees (the sub-title 'gorilla' is inaccurate, taught them how to make fire; for this transgression the chimpanzees lost their tails. In the ecological system in which the BaAka live, chimpanzees are recognized as occupying an intermediate position between animals and humans. In this interesting variant on the Prometheus legend, alienation from the natural order through the acquisition of culture or technology comes at the very inception of human life. There is no innocence, no escaping culture, not even in the rainforest. Nor is there silence in the forest - just the sounds of animals and the speech of the garrulous BaAka - for those who are prepared to listen for them. In a post-modern world, freedom is not to be free of culture, but to be able to select one's culture and, above all, to reject and change that culture to provide greater freedom and fulfillment. Today the Biaka are increasingly threatened by roads opening their territory to loggers who destroy the habitat to which their hunter-gatherer culture has so superbly adapted them.
(We would like to thank Prof. Kairn Kleiman of the University of Houston, Prof. Barry Hewlett of Washington State University and Prof. Rebecca Hardin of McGill University for their assistance in preparing these notes.)