Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials and other sources, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
Oka!, a 2011 drama from director-screenwriter Lavinia Currier, promises intrigue in an exotic setting as it tells the story of an American sound engineer who helps to protect a threatened native tribe deep in the forests of Central Africa. Alas, watching the film itself turns out like that long-planned vacation that gets spoiled by an episode of Montezuma's Revenge. Perhaps the Blu Ray edition should have come packaged with a bottle of Maalox.
Oka!'s eccentric sound collector protagonist, Larry, is based on an actual ethno-musicologist who has spent more than two decades living among the Bayaka tribe in the verdant rainforests of middle Africa. A more straightforward portrait of that man, Louis Sarno, would have made Oka! an interesting biopic - what would drive someone to go halfway around the world to record the music and sounds of a vanishing indigenous people? It would also give an opportunity to learn about recording techniques and the importance of this field of study on a planet that is quickly losing its individual cultural identity. Instead, Oka! chooses to muddle Sarno's work in a confusing, dull screenplay focused on helping the pygmies avoid getting exploited by the big, bad government guy.
The Sarno stand-in, Larry, is played with a charisma-lacking earnestness by actor Kris Marshall. Oka! sets up Larry as a man driven by his passion for primitive African societies - so much so that it makes him a fish out of water in his parents' New Jersey home. That idea might have been conveyed adequately enough in a few lines of script, yet the filmmakers choose to express it in a messy, overlong prologue where Larry has nightmarish visions which his blasé doctor (Peter Reigert) can't comprehend. The film gains some equilibrium when Larry returns to Central Africa to resume studying the Bayaka, a tribe of four-and-a-half foot tall natives who live in huts, hunt for their own food, and sharpen their teeth at pointy angles. While the Bayaka happily welcome Larry back (especially the flirty native girl whom Larry is attracted to), he's seen as an annoyance by Bassoun (Isaach De Bankolé), a government bureaucrat who wants to give the Bayaka's land over to encroaching loggers for the huge profits he'll have a stake in. While Bassoun throws several obstacles in the way of Larry's research, Larry goes on a journey further into the rainforest to locate Sakata, a village elder who (along with his companion) went primitive as a reaction against his fellow natives' Westernized ways. Meanwhile, Bassoun and an Asian businessman named Yi (Will Yun Lee) come up with a plan to have the Bayaka hunt down and kill an elephant. On the grounds that they disobeyed the law by slaughtering an endangered animal, Bassoun plans to relocate the entire tribe to other, less profitable land. What he doesn't count on is the wisdom of Sakata and the intrepid generosity of Larry, both of whom have only the interests of this peaceful, fun-loving tribe in mind.
In the end, Oka! plays out like a boring, 105 minute-long exercise in disappointment. Perhaps the film's most egregious wrong lies in having Larry rarely, if ever, shown recording the Bayaka (wasn't that the point of this film?). The lack of a decent script means that we never truly understand what motivates Larry to do what he does. The good news is that the scenes with the Bayaka are suffused with a refreshingly real spontaneity; it is to director Lavinia Currier's credit that she makes the natives appear comfortable and not at all stagey or exploitative on screen (although the flirtation between Larry and the barely post-pubescent native woman he likes comes across as somewhat weird). There's also some good (not outstanding) photography of the African rainforest, but any benefit the film has as an eye-candy trip to deepest Africa is negated by a flat story that couldn't be less involving.
The Blu Ray:
The 16:9 image on Well Go USA's Blu Ray edition of Oka! sports a clean, sharp image. The film's photography didn't truly impress the way you'd expect, however. The contrast and color levels have a persistent flat, hazy look. Dark levels are keyed slightly too light, resulting in night scenes that look more grey than black. It's decent looking, but not too distinctive visually.
The Blu Ray's main 5.1 HD Surround mix supplies a lot of atmosphere, using all channels of the mix to provide an enveloping effect. The dialogue was so smothered by the sound effects, however, that I had to stop listening to the track after 15 or 20 minutes. The disc's 2.0 Stereo mix is just fine, with clear dialogue well mixed with pristine sound effects and music. Another issue with this disc comes with the subtitles - the only option available is an English sub, which provides text on all spoken dialogue. For a film spoken mostly in English supplemented with French and the natives' Aka, it's an odd choice (and it has several typos).
Only the film's Theatrical Trailer is supplied as a bonus. Trailers for two other Well Go USA releases round out the extras.
Well-intentioned yet disappointing indie drama Oka! manages to avoid being patronizing in telling the well-trod tale of an average white guy studying a primitive African tribe while the forces of industrialization close in on them. While director Lavinia Currie scores points for capturing some spontaneous moments with the film's native African tribespeople, many elements make this one a stupefying slog with a trite, uninteresting storyline. Skip It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.