South By Southwest 2014 Interview: SONG FROM THE FOREST director Michael Obert

By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/08/14 03:04:59

“WHAT ABOUT THE MUSIC? American Louis Sarno has been living with the Bayaka pygmies, a tribe of hunters and gatherers, in the the Central African rainforest for more than twenty-five years. When his son Samedi, a pygmy boy, was a baby, he became seriously ill. Louis feared for his life and made him a promise: “If you get through this, one day I’ll show you the world I come from.” Time has come to fulfill his promise, and father and son travel from the African rainforest to New York City.” Director Michael Obert on SONG FROM THE FOREST which screens at this year's South By Southwest Film Festival.

Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience?

I am a SxSW virgin, yes. I have heard wild things about the festival and the people of Austin and can´t wait to meet them and answer their questions after the screenings.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also what have you worked on in the past?

I am a writer, a hunter and gatherer of stories who has spent the past 20 years travelling to the most remote corners of the Earth, to forgotten paradises as well as to war zones. SONG FROM THE FOREST is my debut movie. I never planned to make a movie. It just happened to me. Like love happens to you.

What was the biggest challenge, or challenges, in making the film?

In the beginning I thought the major challenges would be the harsh conditions in the African rainforest in which we would have to live and work for almost five weeks; the density of the vegetation, the humidity, 650 kilos of equipment, no electricity, no running water, poisonous snakes and spiders and forest elephants going berserk. But in the end the most difficult thing turned out to be dealing with Louis´ deep culture shock when he came to the US. He felt like a stranger in his old world. It was deeply saddening for me and I often had to leave the camera behind and turn from filmmaker to just a human being, a friend.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

I have the habit to hug people I like. But Louis doesn´t like to be hugged. He told me at the beginning. All the months I spent with him prior to the shoot I had to constantly remind myself. After our last day in New York it was time to say good-bye. He said: “You know I don´t like hugs.” And then he gave me the warmest hug ever.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

The story. How it unfolds. Slowly. Unexpectedly. You never know what comes next. As traveller I love the surprises of a journey. And filmmaking is a trip. In the beginning you think you are making a movie but towards the end you realize: The movie is making you.

I would love to know about your relationship to the director of photography and the rest of your team.

I choose the people I work with very carefully. Mostly by intuition. In countries like Afghanistan, Somalia or Congo my intuition has often saved my live. I trust it. Does this director of photography entirely share my vision? Would this editor edit my way if it was his own movie? Once I have chosen my team members I give them a lot of freedom to unfold 200 percent of their creative potential.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW?

The official US premiere of the film at SxSW is very special for me. Louis is American, and I am curious about how Americans will react to him as a protagonist, to his rejection of the American way of life and the social and cultural criticism that is tangible troughout the movie.

After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next? Anywhere you would like it to screen?

SONG FROM THE FOREST will be screened at various international film festivals around the world, in Munich, Thessaloniki, Tel Aviv, Sao Paolo, Seoul and Melbourne and many others. I would really love to also show it at Film Forum in New York.

Alamo Drafthouse and Paramount theaters in Austin aside, if you could show this movie in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?

The one I have to set up myself. With a screen, a beamer, two loudspeakers and a generator. In the central African rainforest behind Louis Sarno´s house. I promised him and the Bayaka that I would come back and show them the movie. The recently erupted civil war in the Central African Republic poses a problem though. Finances are also an issue. But I am working on it. I promised, and promises have to be kept.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking or texting during a screening of your film?

I would kindly ask him to stop it. If he doesn´t, I would curse him with this African spell that I have learnt during my initiation into a secret cult in Nigeria. For the rest of his life all films he was dying to watch in a movie theatre would be SOLD OUT!
There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?

Don´t start making a movie if you still see a chance not to do so. Making it has to become an existential need, a question of life or death.

And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have seen at a film festival?

My first film festival ever was when SONG FROM THE FOREST world premiered at IDFA in Amsterdam last November. But I was too nervous to watch another movie. I will let you know which movie I liked best in Austin.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2014 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 7-15. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
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