Director: Bassek ba Kobhio, Didier Ouénangaré
Country: Central African Republic
The Forest follows a trend that I’ve noticed before in African cinema – the use of non-professional indigenous actors to create greater local authenticity. In The Gods Must be Crazy (South Africa) it was the Kalahari bush farmer Nǃxau ǂToma, and in The Forest it’s an entire village of BaAka (commonly called “pygmies” in English). Much of the film was shot in a remote community of hunter gatherers in the Central African jungle, and the directors have convinced the locals, many of whom had never even seen a film before, to act in it.
The film opens on the protagonist Gonaba, played by one of its few professional actors. We meet him on a riverboat as he returns to his homeland after receiving a European education. Naive and idealistic, Gonaba hopes to use his passion and knowledge to help the Central African Republic cast off its legacy of corruption and poverty.
Leap forward ten years, and Gonaba is a mid-level bureaucrat for the CAR’s Department of Education. Disillusioned, he is frustrated with what he sees as the government’s contempt for its own people – and especially the BaAka communities in the country’s remote areas. To most of Central African society, the BaAka are an oddity for tourists to gawk at, or pests to be driven away. By treating them with dignity and compassion, Gonaba becomes an outcast himself.
And so he sets off into the wilderness, loaded with textbooks and teaching supplies, hoping to bring a “civilised” education to BaAka children and improve their standing. The film goes on to depict Gonaba’s misadventures as he adjusts to life in the forest, learns the villagers’ customs, and struggles to persuade them of the importance of skills like reading and writing. There is a romance with a local woman, conflict with the village elders, and a playful back-and-forth as Gonaba and the BaAka each display their ignorance in different areas. Their relationship is cordial at first, but Gonaba perpetually threatens to take a step too far by being too dismissive of BaAka traditions and beliefs. He soon finds himself with just as many enemies as friends.
Gonaba is likable and his intentions are good, but ultimately he falls into the same trap as the government officials he despises – he believes that he is superior to the BaAka. That his Western education qualifies him to dictate to them what they should learn and how they should live. The Forest’s storytelling strength lies in the way it sheds light on cultural discrimination – not just between Europeans and Africans, but between different groups within Africa as well. By having the BaAka play themselves onscreen, the film dispels the myths of the so-called pygmies as “noble savages” – they are merely a culture no better or worse than any other, but perfectly adapted to their environment. Gonaba, and the audience, must learn a harsh lesson – prejudice can take many forms, but it always has its consequences.