Interview: Michael Obert and Alex Tondowski
A winner of the top prize at this year’s IDFA, Song of the Forest centers on an ideal documentary subject: Louis Sarno, an eloquent and passionate man who has gone to extremes for his beliefs. Drawn to a small village in the Central African Republic after hearing tribal music on the radio, Sarno has largely resided in the Congo since 1985, marrying there and fathering a child. The film hinges on his trip to New York with his son who has never left his small village. FILM COMMENT caught up with the director and world traveler Michael Obert, accompanied by his producer Alex Tondowski, at SXSW.
I read that you have a degree in business administration, and then you transitioned to journalism, and now you’re doing ethnography and filmmaking. Can you talk about how you’ve made those career switches?
Michael Obert: I studied economics, and I was kind of a young shooting star in a management career, and I did that for five years. I had a huge salary, around 10,000 marks, a car, an apartment in Paris, and one day I woke up in the literal meaning of the word. I had the feeling that something was wrong—what I was doing had no intrinsic importance to my life. It took me another two months to kind of get things together in my head, and then I quit. This was in 1993. I took my backpack and I went to South America, and the journey took me two years.
MO: Yeah, all over. Just really drifting, you know? I worked from time to time, but mainly I spent a lot of time with indigenous tribes.
Why did you choose South America?
MO: I wanted to get away as far as possible, and I knew some Spanish. Also, it sounded dangerous, you know, but feasible in a way. I had met people in Paris from Peru and from Colombia, and I started in Guatemala and then I made my way down south. When I came to Peru, I went down to the Amazon Basin. I followed the whole Amazon from the source down to the end of the river, stayed for eight months in Brazil, learned Portuguese . . . and then I came back through Paraguay, to Bolivia and Peru. Two years after I had started, 23 months I think, I stood in Tierra del Fuego, in the southern tip, and I looked south and it was only water, and I knew my trip was over then. So I came back, and I was very surprised that I had written notes over the whole journey. When they became too heavy, I would just send them home to my mother’s house.
So when I came back, in my childhood room in Germany, there was a pile of notebooks that almost went up to my hip. And that’s when I knew I wanted to become a writer. And I never did anything else anymore. It’s a very literary form of journalism, New Yorker style, long features. And I’ve kept traveling since then. Some of my friends say I’ve been on holiday for over 20 years now. I didn’t have a base for a long time. After two years in South America, I then tried Senegal, I hung out in France again, and now I’ve been in Berlin for 12 years. So, to come back to your question, I really think that my journey made me a writer, and then from being a writer, a storyteller. I’m a passionate collector of stories in forgotten paradises as well in war zones. I went to Somalia, to Afghanistan, to a lot of these areas. I’m a hunter-gatherer, gathering stories.
How did you meet Louis Sarno, and how did this become a movie?
MO: In autumn 2009, I was in the Congolese rain forest working on an assignment for a German print magazine. I heard about this white man who was said to be living in the deepest rain forest with a tribe of hunter-gatherers, the pygmies. I said, man, a white American in the rain forest, in this archaic society? I have to find him. So I finished the assignment there and then I had another 10 days left. I was guided by two Bayaka—Bayaka is the correct way to refer to the “pygmies,” because “pygmy” is a pejorative—following this elephant trail for an hour or two into the rain forest. Suddenly the forest opens up and there’s this clearing full of beehive huts (huts made out of bent branches covered with leaves, where people just sleep on the ground). And Bayaka start coming from all sides, staring at me, shouting at me with their spears and facial tattoos and sharply filed teeth, and it was very exotic and it was very intense, and shouting, shouting, shouting, and all of a sudden all the noise stops . . .
It was like a scene in a Hollywood movie. The crowd opened up, there’s this little alley, and at the end of the alley there’s this white guy coming out of the underbrush, no shirt, bare feet, a naked Bayaka baby in each arm. He comes through the alley toward me, he gives away the babies to their mothers, and he comes and he stands in front of me, crosses his arms, and he basically says: “What the hell are you doing here? Who are you? What do you want?” I came unannounced, obviously. So, in these types of situations, very often on my journeys, when I’m threatened—for example, somebody pulls a gun—I have this intuition to take their hand. So that’s what I did in this case too: I just grabbed his hand. So I had his hand in my hand, we were standing in the middle of the clearing in the deepest rain forest in the Congo basin with 200 Bayaka staring at us. Total silence: oh my God, what’s going to happen?
And that’s when it clicked, I think, between Louis and me. Something happened in this moment—now four years later, I still don’t know what it was exactly. Still looking for answers. I looked for answers during the whole process of making this film, especially in the editing phase. So he said: “Okay, you come in.” And we sat in his hut and we randomly talked for hours: the Lower East Side in the Eighties, the Ramones, Heidegger, bush meat, God, and what kind of religion would you practice if you were religious, and stuff like that, you know? And then in the morning, he says: “Let’s go for a hunt. Three or four days, even deeper in the rain forest, you wanna come?” I said: “Louis I don’t have anything with me.” He said: “That’s okay, we don’t have anything either.” So we went for a hunt, three or four days, we slept on the floor next to the fire, ate the same food as the Bayaka ate, what they hunted and collected, bathing in the same rivers, and we had a fantastic time. We came back to the clearing and it was time to say goodbye. I said goodbye, I’m used to saying goodbye as a traveler.
But then this funny thing happened: he gave me his email address. That was an absurd moment: we’re in the middle of the jungle and he gives me his email address. There’s no electricity. Every other Saturday he would go to this research base to check his emails. That’s how he’s in touch with his mother, his brothers, and people like Jim Jarmusch, who, I would say, he’s even closer to than his brothers. So, he gave me his email address, and then I think about five months later I get this email from Louis Sarno in the Congo basin, just three lines: “Hi Michael, my mother sent me a ticket . . . Arrival JFK such and such time . . . You want to hook up?” So that’s when I decided to come to New York and meet him again. Just for my own purposes, to write a story about him. And that’s when I met him in New York. I stayed for two weeks.
What year was this?
MO: That was in early summer 2010. He took me to his mom’s house, I met his brothers, I met Jim Jarmusch, and the whole dimension of the story unfolded in the U.S. So again, you know, being a writer I came back. I wrote what I consider one of my favorite stories, a fantastic piece for ZEITmagazin, which is the German version of The New York Times Magazine. I took the same photographer with me to write the story, who also accompanied the film shoot afterward. And during the whole time in the U.S., Louis was telling me about Samedi, his son. I didn’t even know that he had a son. I mean, I had seen him, but I didn’t really pay attention in the rain forest. Here you have this guy, he comes back to the U.S., he’s not feeling comfortable anymore, and he constantly sees the world through his son’s eyes, and he tells you about his son. When he was a baby, Samedi was sick and close to death, and Louis promised him: “If you survive, one day I’m going to show you where I came from, I’m going to take you to New York City.”
So Louis, not being comfortable in his old world, his mother, his brother, his friend Jim Jarmusch, his collection of music, the promise to his son… it’s a dream story, you know? And maybe a year later or so I ran into Alex [Tondowski], who I’ve known for a long time. We’re drinking a lot, and all of a sudden Alex says: “Why don’t we do a movie? I know how to produce and you have the stories!” So we were randomly talking about stories that had I done in the last couple of years, brainstorming, and then I mention Louis, and Alex was really blown away. “We have to do a movie!” That’s now 2011. And then six months later we find ourselves in the deepest rain forest, in the Congo, a small team but with 650 kilograms of technical equipment and camping gear and survival stuff, and we shot the movie. Twelve weeks in a row, five weeks in the rain forest, a good week, week-and-a-half journey, and then another four to five weeks in the U.S.
What were there any technical challenges going so far into a climate where there are very heavy rains at any moment and there’s no electricity?
MO: The major technical challenge was the humidity and the light situation. Around midday, it’s still dark. The darkness during the day is very, very powerful, and if it starts to rain, it gets even darker. We took out our second camera, I think the first day, and it ran for two minutes and it shut down. We couldn’t use that camera for the rest of the shoot. This small camera was meant to be the tool to kind of crawl into the dense vegetation, details. So we only had our big camera left, and we shot the whole thing with it. It was super-heavy for Siri [Klug], our camerawoman, but in the end it really paid off. The quality of the image is much better. It was almost like fate: the camera was broken, we couldn’t use it anymore, we had to use the big one, and it really paid off.
Alex Tondowski: I know the camera department and the sound department spent a huge amount of time every night and on weekends drying all the equipment, putting them in these bags with salt to get the humidity out. Microphones are also very susceptible. And sound was always an incredibly important part of the project.
Did you choose the Bayaka music, or did Louis make the selections?
MO: I chose it. I went to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford last summer to get a sense of what’s available. Louis has recorded over 1,600 hours of Bayaka music, so I went there to hear the instruments, the pearls of the archives. The variety and the whole spectrum of this music is mind-blowing. They’re all inspired by the sounds of the rain forest, a kind of music through imitation of natural sounds. Louis once said: “The ambience is the orchestra, and the Bayaka are playing the solo.” The 16th-century music [in the film] was there from the very beginning. The very first night I slept there, Louis said: “Michael, I have to play something for you.” He just had a little battery-driven CD player with two loudspeakers, and he puts in this CD in the middle of the rain forest: four voices, polyphonic music by William Byrd from the 16th century. I was blown away. So when the idea of the movie came up, this music was the first thing that was there. I was always very, very clear that the whole story is in this music. It’s not in the Bayaka music for me: it’s in the 16th-century music. It was almost analogous to when he heard the Bayaka music on the radio that lured him into the rain forest, and then he played this music for me that lured me into his life.
So having been lured into his life and then having been lured into making a film, it was very clear that this music has to be the beginning. When we came to the editing, I said: “Let’s forget about dramaturgy and let’s go to liturgy. Let’s celebrate this mass.” So we put in the five pieces before we touched a single image. The curia in the beginning (which is also the opening music), it’s the greeting of God, or in our case it’s the greeting of nature. And then we put certain images out of our material that we thought would fit the different moments of the mass. That’s the structure of the whole movie. Almost nobody knows that we are celebrating a mass, but you can feel that there’s something going on in the background of this movie. Maybe you don’t even realize that it has to do with this music, but there is a narrative thread that comes from somewhere else. The movie was directed and edited by this music. It is a story about a man who heard music on the radio, and he followed the music, and he found the music, and he stayed, and he never came back.
Louis is very open, obviously, but were there any parts of his life where he was sort of like “No, we can’t go there”?
MO: You know, I wouldn’t say that Louis is open. I would say he’s—
MO: Yeah, and he’s very selective. I consider it as a privilege that he opened up, and it’s a huge amount of trust that he has in me as a person. I think that we have so many things in common. And then also, if somebody came to me and said “I want to make a film about you,” my first question would be: “What other films have you done before?” So, in my case, none. That’s a risk. You know, Louis is a character. I love him. I think you can see in the movie that I have a high opinion of him, and a huge amount of respect, and also like a personal, emotional relationship, almost like a father figure / friend.
When it was clear we were going to make the movie, I came back for a month, and I stayed with their community, trying to get rid of the gap, or the remaining parts of the gap between myself and the Bayaka, and just basically blending in. To eat the same thing, to sleep on the ground next to each other, not to have any privileges, that really is something that is highly appreciated by everybody everywhere in the world. And also, that’s the reason why I wanted the team to be part of the community. We didn’t drive into the forest. We slept right where the Bayaka slept, in tents. So, there was no real no-go area in our conversations. Once the trust was there he was pretty open. I wouldn’t say there were any areas that he was hiding.</p>
But there’s a brief scene where these M’Baka, another Congolese tribe, are smoking, and say: “Let’s act really tough for these white guys who are shooting us.”
MO: Yes, the people with the guns. We came back with 90 hours of material total, and I would estimate that about 50 hours were in a language that I did not speak. So we had a translator from the Congo Basin come over, after we had pre-selected eight hours of material. We had selected it visually and by the 100 or 150 words of Yagua [the language of the Bayaka] that I speak myself. I said: “Okay, this is the question I asked, or this is the subject that I inspired, so they’re probably talking about this and that, which looks good, so let’s put it in.” So there were six weeks where I went through every sentence with this translator to bring it from Yagua into French, and then from French into German, my language. And then from German it was re-translated into English subtitles. As a writer-journalist, words are my daily bread, you know. But this is a very old language, and at least half of translating is interpretation, and I really wanted to make sure.
This scene you mentioned blew me away because it fits so well into the subject of “to watch and to be watched.” I thought, wow, this is a moment where I can get the audience on board—everybody understands that “okay, they’re watching us now.” The whole theme of “who is watching who,” this game, that culminates in the last image of the movie when the woman [telling the Bayaka origin story of white people] looks into the audience for almost a minute, and you hear the sounds of the city. The meta level is very clear: she has watched us watching them all the time.
And that’s a direct step into what is the movie all about, apart from Louis’s personal story. Who are we? Where do we belong? Where’s home? How do we blend into the system? What does the system do with us? Can we get out of the system? If so, where could we go? Where on earth can we still go to live another life? Is this a utopian idea of going somewhere else and become a new person, is it possible? Et cetera. And that all kind of goes with: who am I, what is my own [sense of self], and what is the Other. So you are clearly advised in a very humorous way to acknowledge that you are being watched during the movie. People laugh all the time, but there’s something else coming around with this funny moment.
It’s a succinct reminder that anytime you see a photograph or moving image, someone put a camera there and then made a choice to record.
MO: It’s also a demystification of the idea that the filmmaker is there but also invisible. It’s a complete deconstructive moment of, we are part of this, and it just happens.
Has Louis seen the film, and do you have any plans to show it to the Bayaka?
MO: I have promised Louis and the Bayaka that I would come back and show them the movie. And I keep my promises. We are still working on it. Financing is an issue. It is a major logistical challenge to get a couple of generators and loudspeakers and a screen and a beamer in this humidity. And then there's the current political situation in the Central African Republic, where you have a civil war that recently erupted and over a million people on the run. But we’re working on it. We have invited Louis various times—to the world premiere in Amsterdam, and also here—but he just doesn’t want to leave his community in this difficult time.
Do you see this film as having an activist purpose? You’ve done some activist work in the past with refugees from the Sinai in Israel, and towards the end Louis is talking about how the WWF is not really doing what they should be doing, and the idea of how people who come with good intentions should be careful.
MO: I mean, yeah, this is four years of my life. I’m still a traveler first, and then I’m a journalist or a filmmaker, but that means as a traveler, I’m a human being among human beings. I’m not a journalist among subjects and objects. That’s very clear. Somebody’s dying here, so my first intention is how can I help this guy, and not how can I make a good photo of him. Here is this community, here’s Louis, I feel close to him, I feel close to the people. They’re struggling for survival, and here’s the movie. We have audiences, we have access to the public, so why not use this as a—I wouldn’t call it a tool, but as a messenger for these people exist. We created the Bayaka Project—out of our own knowledge and expertise of what’s going on, we know who does good work there. At the moment, WWF has certain projects to help the Bayaka. Mainly motivated by the filmmaking, basically, because over 20 years nothing really happened, the conservations focused on other things: tropical birds, elephants, gorillas—
—cute, easily marketed animals?
MO: Yes. But now there’s stuff coming up, and they invite us to their meetings so we know what’s going on. We can contribute and say, okay, I think this should be done also. So, the Bayaka Project selects meaningful projects on site and recommends them to our audience to support them. Especially for American audiences, we are here with Global Voices, an NGO that supports Louis directly. Because he’s the only one who cares on site: he buys medicine for tuberculosis, he sends people to hospital, and he doesn’t have a cent. He has no personal belongings, no income, but he pays for all these people.
AT: Plus 50 percent of the proceeds from the film that comes to the production company will go directly back into supporting the Bayakas.