Director Lavinia Currier’s (Passion in the Desert) film Oka! is based on the unpublished memoir of ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno, a New Jersey native who has lived with the Bayaka pygmies in the southwestern part of the Central African Republic (CAR) for more than 25 years as a welcome member of their community. Currier shot most of the film in the remote jungles of CAR with a cast comprised primarily of members of the Bayaka tribe. Here, she describes the most important lessons she will take away from this extreme and profound experience.
Remain open to change. Accidents of fate or nature can be opportunities, bringing ideas you hadn’t thought of while writing the script or preparing the shoot. Shooting in a remote location with non-actors and wild animals, many things were out of our control. While not being able to accomplish scenes that I planned to shoot was at first a catastrophe, I looked for alternatives and often found something better.
Remember your story and your original inspiration. While this seems obvious, the chaos, constraints and demanding work of shooting can drain a director of his or her vision. As unforeseen events close doors of possibility and open others, you have to constantly retell yourself your story with the tone or cadence—or music—that accompanied its first visit to your mind. Your key crew will hold the detail of executing your vision for you, but only the director can keep the vision alive and intact.
Get to know your crew before hiring them. A film in a remote location is a “lifeboat” experience, and you’d better know whom you are embarking with before you set sail. From your producer to your hair and make-up, your film, and perhaps even your life, will depend on it. Once there, find your allies and keep them close. They are not always people in the most obvious roles; sometimes a supporting actor or even an extra will keep others on target, like a metronome keeping time. On our set, there was Bimba, a young Bayaka girl, maybe eleven years old, who watched everything I did, and if the children in the cast were goofing off, she brought their attention back to the film.
Keep yourself healthy. The shoot is a marathon, and you need stamina as well as inspiration. As well as having to watch where we walked because of all the deadly snakes that slithered around our forest camp, we made sure to exercise on rest days. (I did yoga with the costume department or swam in the river with the Bayaka women.) Finally, when you do get to sleep, remember your dreams. Being in the African bush brought many of us foreigners rich, wild dreams. I often found them informative and helpful for the day ahead.