As a film stupefied by its exotic setting, Oka! almost drops its walking stick of a plot as it wanders through the Central African Republic’s jungle, getting blissed out on the sensuous delights of the surrounding wildlife and local Bayaka music, a sensation embodied by the film’s main character, Larry Whitman (Kris Marshall), an ailing ethnomusicologist from New Jersey who’s come back to Africa with his boom mic to capture the sound of the elusive molimo instrument. While the film’s beautiful distractions elevate it above its humdrum plot, in which local Bantu Mayor Bassoun (Isaach De Bankolé) collusively negotiates the Bayaka’s invaluable forest resources to a rich Chinese man (Will Yun Lee), they’re only small rewards in a dreamy film that otherwise feels strangely distant from itself.
Though critics have been crediting Oka! as a film that avoids the clichés that its storyline of a white man coming to Africa tends to lend itself to, it’s hard to say if that’s due to anything other than the film’s aforementioned distant perspective and distractedness, qualities that, combined with Conrad W. Hall’s washed-out cinematography, can make Oka! feel more like a muddled reverie than anything director Lavinia Currier purposefully considered. Though Currier based the story on an unpublished memoir by Louis Sarno (the co-writer and the real person Larry is based on), the film somehow feels more fanciful than factual, a rift that’s aggravated by the juxtaposition of the real actors’ performances and the Bayaka pygmies’ at times startling real presence (they’re four-and-a-half feet tall and have sharpened-to-a-point teeth). Though most everything being filmed is real, because Oka! feels like it was made during a high fever, the elephants, snakes, hippos, gorillas, and women drumming on water appear like sights before someone sickly, as if the film’s direction were trying to personify Larry’s own illness—not so much hallucinations, but sights made incidental by being ill.
Its nature scenes lacking the eye-popping qualities of modern-day HD documentaries and its story too pat to offer insight into well-known problems of deforestation, and because of its unfocused attention on the Bayakans themselves, Oka! may work best simply as an homage to sound recording, with Larry exemplifying, like the character Jack Terry, played by John Trevolta in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, the adventures the hobby can lead one into.