THE FOREST/LE SILENCE DE LA FORÊT (2003, Central African Republic, 93 min.), directed by Didier Ouénangaré and Bassek ba Kobhio; screenplay by Didier Ouénangaré, Bassek ba Kobhio, and Marcel Beaulieu from the novel by Étienne Goyemidé; cinematography by Pierre-Olivier Larrieu; music by Manu Dibango; edited by Joseph Licidé; with Eriq Ebouaney (Gonaba), Nadège Beausson-Diagne (Simone), Sonia Zembourou (Kali), Philippe Mory (Prefect), Zacka Soumbou (Patriarch), Ernest Mongai (Koutou), Antoine Zoko (Touka), Zéphyrin Tina (Ediogo), and the Baaka people of the village of Koungou. In Diaka, French, and Sango with English subtitles.
One of the staple plot lines in African film is that of the young African who goes to Europe for Western education and either chooses to remain there and (attempt to) become absorbed into the Western mainstream, or chooses to return to his/her country of origin. If the latter, the young African generally returns with a swelled head and a sense of personal missioneither to become rich or powerful, or to "advance" his/her compatriots into the world of modernity.
Gonaba, the hero of Basek ba Kobhios latest film, belongs in this last category. He joins the complex, idealistic, well-intentioned but ultimately misguided heroes of the directors earlier filmsMalo, the teacher in Sango Malo (1991), who tries to bring new methods of education to a traditional village; and Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the celebrated Alsatian humanitarian locked into his Western prejudices and expectations in Le Grand Blanc de Lambaréné (1995).
The film opens with Gonabas return to the Central African Republic with his freshly-minted French degree in hand. Played by Eriq Ebouaney, who was so powerful and imposing as Patrice Lumumba in Raoul Pecks excellent Lumumba (2000), Gonaba is tall, handsome, well-dressed, full of self-importance and sense of himself as his countrys agent for positive change ("I already see the day when I can say tiiumphantly, Look at what I did for this country!"). His attitude only elicits derision from the captain of the ferry that he is taking (who refers to Gonaba as "a White"), setting up a pattern of frustration for the young idealist that will be repeated again and again.
The film jumps forward ten years. Gonaba is now the regional Education Inspector for one of the Central African regions, and his voice-over commentary lets us know just how disappointed and frustrated he is with his inability to fulfill his dreams. The country is poorly run by a corrupt military, police, and education infrastructure. No one cares for the greater good, but only for ways to get ahead, which means somehow lording it over others. The ideals of Barthélemy Boganda (who led the fight for independence) and the trappings of traditional folklore are manipulated and corrupted towards this end.
Gonaba is embittered by his inability to do any real good in his work and resorts to petty, ridiculous gestures (e.g., wearing a beige leisure suit rather than a Western business suit on Independence Day), acting inappropriately at a posh dinner party hosted by the regional governor (the Prefect). It is telling that after the latter incident we hear a chauffeur say to his comrades, "If I had a boss like that, Id quit the same day!" No one seems to appreciate his noble gestures.
He does, however, attract the attentions of a gorgeous young cabaret owner, Simone, who is clearly taken by his oddball nature. The attraction is partly physical, partly out of boredom and the desire for something different. In any case, despite some very intense lovemaking (of a graphic nature rarely seen in African film), their relationship will not last, because Gonaba quickly develops a new, overpowering interest.
This interest is in the Baaka, or Pygmy, people who live in the region and are treated with contempt and condescension whenever they leave their forest homes. For big shots like the Prefect, they are sub-human, natural resources to be exploited (as "tourist attractions" or as indentured servants) just like any of the countrys abundant natural resources. He sees them dancing (and treated like animals) at the Prefects party, then meets one while on a school tour (the man is serving as a virtual slave to the local chief). He decides that he has discovered his true vocationeschewing the corrupt world of village and city, he will penetrate the forest and teach the Baaka how to read and write (in French), thereby giving them the tools to advocate for themselves and protect themselves from exploitation. It is a noble vision, but it can only lead to failure.
On the verge of making contact with the Baaka, Gonaba is seriously injured when he is snared in a hunting trap, and he must be healed and nurtured by the people that he has come to save. Indeed, this dependent relationship sets the tone for his entire relations with them. They have their own well-established, vibrant culture (the "silence of the forest" is another one of Gonabas romantic illusionsthe Baaka, like the forest itself, is noisy, dynamic, and potentially very dangerous), and they have no use for what he has to offer them. Though they will eventually come to acceptin a limited waythis tall outsider who eventually marries one of them and has a Baaka child, their focus will remain on their ancestors and the past--on their own myths of origin, for example, the story of how the chimpanzee (not the gorilla, as the subtitles erroneously state) sacrificed its tail in giving fire to the Pygmy people, a story that embodies the ecological ideals and values of the Baaka. Gonabas self-centeredness gradually gives way (though not completely) to real love and affection for the Baaka. Ultimately, though, he can do nothing for them.
By the time he returns to the city at the end, alone and broken, we cannot help but feel that a sense of doom hangs over the Baaka. After all, their fate is in the hands of people like the Prefect and the white "Forest Ranger" whose real job is to see that the huge old-growth trees in the forest are exported at a good price without the interference of the "ecologists."
Although The Forest is very much rooted in its time and place, the implications of its story of ethnic marginalization and victimization can of course be extended much farther. In an interview with French television at the time of the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Bassek ba Kobhio mentioned that he was also thinking of the ethnic conflict in Rwanda (where each ethnic group considered itself "descended from God," while the other was barely human), as well as the trans-Atlantic slave tradeboth the Europeans who directed it and the Africans who were complicit in it. The Baakatreated with the same racial condescension that have characterized the Europeans attitudes towards Black Africans--thus become a people from whom we can all learn a great deal, both in terms of their own way of life, and in the responses that they generate in those on the outside.
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An accomplished filmmaker and author of several novels, Bassek ba Kobhio of Cameroun was born in Nindje, Cameroun, 1957. He worked as
Was the Assistant Director onfor the French director Claire Denis film Chocolat (1988), and directed several short films before making his first feature, Sango Malo (1991), and then Le Grand Blanc de Lambaréné in 1995. Along with his filmmaking, he is passionately devoted to the promotion of film in Africa, through his production company Films Terre Africaine and through his work with the traveling film festival and organization Ecrans Noirs (Black Screens), which seeks to establish a viable distribution system throughout Africa, both via film and projected video.film set in Africa, Chocolat (1988).
The films co-writer and co-director, Didier Ouénangaré, is from the Central African Republic. A veteran of C.A.R. television, this is his first feature film. Through his television work, Ouénangaré had good contacts with the Baaka people. Also, he He held the rights to the novel by the late Étienne Goyemidé, former Minister of Education in the C.A.R. He approached ba Kobhios production company, Terre Africaine, and the two men decided on a complete collaboration (resulting in 39 drafts of the script!). The funding came in large part ($400,000 Euros) from the European Union, which was attracted by the films ability to shed light on the challenges faced by the Baaka in central Africa.
The Forest played at the Cannes Film Festival, along with a number of international festivals, winning the Jury Award at Namur. Billed as the first feature film made in the Central African Republic, it was actually a co-production of the C.A.R., Cameroun, and Gabon, an accomplishment in which Ba Kobhio has taken great pride. Like many other African directors, he sees cinema co-productions as the only way to build a viable African film industry, as well as a vehicle for greater economic and regional cooperation. The funding came in large part ($400,000 Euros) from the European Union, which was attracted by the films ability to shed light on the challenges faced by the Baaka in central Africa.
--Notes by Michael Dembrow
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