Film: Le silence de la forêt (2003)
Countries: Central African Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, France
Language (s): Diaka, Sango, and French with English Subtitles
Le silence de la forêt (2003), which goes by the title The Forest in English, is the first film to come out of the Central African Republic. It is co-directed by Central African filmmaker Didier Florent Ouénangaré and Cameroonian filmmaker Bassek Ba Kobhio. The film is an adaptation of the 1984 novel of the same name by Central African writer Étienne Goyémidé. The story begins with the return of Gonaba, played by French-Cameroonian actor Eriq Ebouaney best known for his portrayal of Patrice Lumumba in Raoul Peck’s film Lumumba, who has been away studying in France, to his home in the Central African Republic. He is idealistic and hopes to use his education to improve the lives of his countrymen. The film then fast fowards to ten years later and Gonaba is now a civil servant in the Central African Republic’s corrupt bureaucracy. As Michael Dembrow describes him:
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.
So Gonaba has failed to “liberate” his countrymen with his education but he soon finds another group of people to “liberate”: The Baaka (Babinga) People, better known as Pygmies. While attending a party at the home of the regional governor (Prefect) Gonaba witnesses the ill-treatment of the Baaka people. As Dembrow writes:
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 country’s abundant natural resources. He sees them dancing (and treated like animals) at the Prefect’s 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 vocation—eschewing 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.
Gonaba goes to live with the Baaka people in what obviously seems to be an attempt to redeem himself. However, his perception of them as “noble savages” who simply need to be enlightened by reason in order to be freed of the superstitions that plague their romantically simple lifestyle soon backfires on Gonaba and ends in tragedy. I really appreciated how the film portrayed the forms of oppression that exist between African peoples, whether it be overt racism and exploitation, as we see with The Prefect, or the more subtle but equally detrimental paternalism of Gonaba. According to the review of the film written for California Newsreel: “The fact that this film is the first to focus on the exploitation and racism between more modern Africans and an autochthonous people, so ironically reminiscent of the attitudes of European colonists towards Africans, makes it even more unusual and fascinating.”
The Baaka, like many of the world’s indigenous peoples, are seeing their way of life destroyed by the increasing deforestation of the regions they call home. The film was actually filmed in a Baaka village and many of the actors were villagers with no theatrical training. In an interview Didier Florent Ouénangaré discusses working with the Baaka:
The initial idea was to draw attention to the Pygmies, an ethnic minority ignored by the politicians, the administration, and the world in general. When you go into the heart of the forest, you realise that deforestation is making it impossible for them to live from hunting, gathering, and nature as they used to. They are at risk of being wiped out like the Native Americans, only they wont even be confined to reserves! Gonaba’s role serves to hold a mirror up to show the Central Africans what they are doing.
It’s not only racist; it’s a human catastrophe too. I have had several opportunities to make documentaries about the Pygmies. Catholic nuns are trying to integrate them into the civil population by sending the youngest members of the Pygmy population to schools, but it doesn’t work because they go about it the wrong way. You can’t take someone who has lived a life firmly rooted in the forest and ask him to live like a Westerner. It isn’t for us to impose what we want. It’s true that Westerners came and imposed the way in which we live today on us, which isn’t only negative, but it’s better to ask people what they want.
I am the first to be fascinated by the Pygmies. Two had already gone on tour in folkloric dance troupes abroad, but the rest had never left their village! I told them that we were going to film a tale and that they needed to think that they were in the tale itself. But when I wanted to marry two actors in the film, they refused for fear of the husband’s reaction… But with some cigarettes, a drink, and a good long discussion, they agreed.
We looked for a site that wasn’t too far from a town, but at the same time was sufficiently far away. We built a village to house the Pygmies, and another for the studio. Everything that you see in the film is a village-studio, built according to the screenplay. They lived in an adjoining village built specially for them.
Trivia: In the 2003, the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the non-competitive Directors’ Fortnight. It was the only African film included in that year’s line up. It won the Jury’s Prize at the Namur Festival in Belgium. Eriq Ebouaney actually had to learn the Central African language Sango , which is the primary language of the country, in order to play the role of Gonaba. The film was scored by Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango.
About the film Le silence de la forêt
Review by California News Reel available online
Review by Michael Dembrow available online
Review in French available online
Review in French by Valerie Ganne available online
Interview with Didier Ouénangaré in English available online
Interview with Bassek ba Kobhio in French available online
About Étienne Goyémidé
Profile in French available online
La dynamique des rapports interculturels chez Étienne Goyémidé by Francoise Ugochukwu (academic essay in French available online)
Goyemide on Slavery: The Liberating Power of The Word by Francoise Ugochukwu (academic essay available online)
About the Pygmies
Pygmies.org is a website dedicated to the hunter-gatherer peoples living in the Central African rainforests, commonly called Pygmies.
Are the men of the African Aka tribe the best fathers in the world? By Joanna Moorehead (article in The Guardian UK available online)