Faces of Work preview engages audience

One of Carnegie Mellon University’s best-kept secrets is its annual International Film Festival. The festival, this year titled Faces of Work, is the only student-run International Film Festival in the country. Most films are shown in McConomy Auditorium, but there are some other venues around Pittsburgh that will show a few of the 18 films being screened. The Festival officially begins on March 19, but on Friday night in McConomy, captivated audiences received with a “sneak preview.”

The main event of the preview was the film Song from the Forest. Additionally, the evening consisted of a percussion performance led by ethnomusicologist and native Congolese Anicet Mundundu, a video introduction by director Michael Obert, and a panel and reception with distinguished scholars and David Rothenberg, the film’s Music Supervisor.

Song from the Forest follows the journey of Louis Sarno, an American musicologist, who moved to the Central African rainforest after listening to the music of the native groups in the region. Sarno has lived among the Bayaka, a specific tribe of Baka people, for the past 25 years. The film is essentially an in-depth portrait of the Bayaka people, their music, and the man who fell in love with their way of life. In the film, Sarno takes his 13-year-old son Samedi back with him to America for a visit, and viewers are able to view the dichotomy between the two lifestyles through his eyes.

The film is chock-a-block full of juxtapositions: The landscapes of the Central African rainforest and the towering skyscrapers of New York City are shocking and switched between abruptly; the chaotic-sounding polyphonic music of the Bayaka and the synchronized polyphony of Renaissance choral music pair in an interesting soundtrack; Sarno himself explores the ideas of solitude versus community, noise versus silence, and black versus white. Song from the Forest raises a lot of important questions about society and the meaning of life, as audiences are forced to question what makes an individual feel at peace.

Sarno came to live with the Bayaka because of their music, and thus the film is filled with the noises and sounds from his home in the Central African forest. The film doesn’t just capture the musical traditions and performances of the people; it emphasizes the music that is present in the everyday lives of these hunter gatherers. Children gathering water from the river do not hesitate to slap the water in a complex and playful rhythm; men taking a break from hunting listen and respond to an old man’s song; young boys dance naked in a mud puddle as older children around them laugh and clap. Even the sounds of the forest, and the deafening rain, fill audience’s ears as they watch Sarno live and work among these people.

Sarno is a complex man whose life is “paradoxical,” as panelist David Cronenberg described it after the film. For instance, Cronenberg further explained, no one is totally sure whether or not Sarno has any money. In the film Sarno talks about feeling stressed about the amount of debt he has accrued helping the Bayaka build a school and get medical attention. He feels guilty because the Bayaka always assume that he is able to buy and give them things because he is a Westerner, and he isn’t sure how to convince them otherwise. However, he flies back to New York City and buys toys for his son, so his true financial situation is a little unclear. His brother is very wealthy, but the financial relationship between the two is never discussed and this lack of dialogue is hugely apparent.

At one point toward the end of the film, Sarno and Samedi walk down the streets of New York City after leaving a toy store, and Samedi is heckling his father to buy him a gun. In the moment it seems like any young boy asking his father for a gun, which his father then denies him. The film’s poignancy comes up a few minutes later, as Samedi sits on the edge of a bed musing over his toys. He openly expresses annoyance with his father, who has little-to-no interest in buying Samedi things that will be useful back home. Samedi lists some items, like “underwear, shirts, shoes,” as well as guns, which would have a major effect on the efficiency of the Bayaka hunting style. But Sarno is disinterested in bringing back such items, and instead he buys Samedi a water gun and other toys.

Why is Sarno hesitant to bring back items to aid the Bayaka? Why is he so uninterested in any of his American family and friends visiting him in the forest? These questions delve deep into Sarno’s thinking and natural behavior. Sarno’s life in Africa has clearly inspired him, and many clips from the movie are Sarno’s troubled face, thinking, as well as his occasional musings about the Bayaka. He’s self-effacing and self-absorbed in turn, dismissing Western culture, acting somewhat cold toward others, and lavishing praise with regularity.

The panelists touched on many of these themes throughout the discussion following the film. Sarno’s life is an enigma that even the filmmakers are still trying to understand. After the panel, audience members enjoyed a reception in CUC Connan, where they were able to snack on delicious Congolese treats.

Many of the movies being screened during the Festival have special guest speakers or audience members and will be followed by a reception. The 18 films featured come from 12 countries around the globe, and will introduce a multitude of perspectives. Not only is Song from the Forest an excellent film that everyone should see, it indicates perfectly that the rest of Carnegie Mellon’s International Film Festival will be superb.