Shooting the feature OKA! in the Central African Republic with the Bayaka pygmies of the forest was about as far from Hollywood as one can imagine, our ‘sets’ were forest camps of huts built by the Bayaka women and our art department.
Logistics in every film are complicated but for OKA! they were extreme. We were 16 hours by dirt road from the capital city where our equipment had to be flown in from Paris, and an equal distance from the closest functioning hospital. Our living quarters was an abandoned sawmill on the banks of the Sangho River which we made into a kind of safari camp where one walked around cautiously, as it was infested with deadly poisonous snakes.
The Bayaka Pygmies are the original inhabitants of the Central African forest; expert naturalists, superb musicians, playful mimics and they also proved to be able actors and devoted themselves to the unfamiliar work of shooting a feature film. The film story is based on the life experiences of Louis Sarno, an ethnomusicologist who has lived with the Bayaka for 27 years, and who was with us on set as interpreter and advisor throughout.
Although Louis was invaluable as a liaison between us and the Bayaka, there were limits to his involvement when it came to the women, as the roles of Bayaka men and women are gender-specific. Bayaka society is non-hierarchical and egalitarian between the sexes and the women are strong and independent. They hunt with the men, and are otherwise in charge of the gathering of fruits and vegetables in the forest. Only women build the leaf huts and they do it in about 45 minutes. (They were highly amused by the presence of a male from the art department on the hut construction crew.) Both women and men dance, sing and play music, but more often than not, separately.
The women actors on the film bonded with the costume designers, Cora and Chloe (Delphi). Continuity was a challenge, as Bayaka share clothes and when an item no longer pleases them, they drop it unceremoniously and another person, often of the opposite sex, will find it and put it on. (Not always on the same part of the body, I saw underpants worn as hats.) My favorite clothing incident was having given a pair of rubber boots to a child and then coming across him and his buddy in the road, each wearing one boot with the other foot in a shared pair of flip-flops.
So strict rules regarding the return of costumes at the end of the day had to be established, as well as rules prohibiting the women from spontaneously cutting their hair during the shoot. Women who had babies passed them to their husbands, who spend almost equal time with infants, or to one of many pre-adolescent girls who baby-sit when the mother goes hunting, or in this case, was on set.
One big challenge was with our lead actress, Mbombi, the only Bayaka actor who behaved like a diva. She looked pregnant in the first weeks of the shoot and her growing belly was a disaster as she was playing Larry’s love interest. Having three understudies for each role in this case proved unhelpful, as the other girls could not rise to the occasion of replacing Mbombi in her role. After a few difficult days, we were told that the growing belly was the result of eating sandwiches constantly on set, and after long negotiations with her boyfriend/manager regarding a raise, the not pregnant Mbombi finally resumed her role.
Lavinia Currier is the director, co-writer and producer of OKA!, her third feature film, and she is also an environmentalist with a diverse interest in the interplay of the arts and ecology.
Where the film is playing:
OKA! is now playing in New York at the Village East Cinema and will open October 28th in Los Angeles at the Sunset 5 and in San Francisco at the Opera Plaza.