“Chimpanzee!” was the whisper from Petit Jean, our Baka tracker as we crawled our way through the thickest undergrowth I have ever seen. By my estimations they were about 150m away and the current visibility in the forest was about 15m, it was a lost cause. We had been sweating our way through the Congo Rainforest for 3 days and so far I had only filmed a few butterflies and a millipede! It was tough going.
We were filming in a relatively new national park on the border of Congo and Cameroon. A beautiful wild area, but also an area under attack. Every day long lines of trucks carry massive old trees from the forest and take them to the coastline for transport to Europe and the east. Our main goal was to film the lives of a group of Baka pygmies who lived on the outskirts of the national park as well as film wildlife within the forest – elephant, gorilla and chimpanzee.
Traditionally hunter gatherers the Baka now eke out an existence in degraded forest and are also abused for their labour by other surrounding ethnic groups. When it comes to maginalisation this is the quintessential case.
We had been following a few individuals as they went about their daily lives, trying to get by. Onja was the oldest Baka in the village. Not quite sure when he was born but he thought he was around 60. Still we could not keep up with him on his daily expeditions into the forest. Turning the world around him into useable impliments with just a machete and some twists and turns. Buckets, traps, you name it he could make it.
It is often too easy to sentimentalise and objectify the things one films. The Baka embody what many of us would hope is possible – a symbiosis and harmony with nature, the Garden of Eden scenario which would make us all feel better about living such detached lives. The reality is that it is daily struggle and has probably always been a very hard way to live. The Baka see what the rest of the world has to offer, and they want that. They want beds to sleep in and they want their children to go to school.
Filming in these sorts of situations raises a number of questions. One always has preconceptions before arriving in a place. What it is going to be like, and what the story is going to be? Unfortunately these preconceptions are often wrong as they were in this case. However as a documentary filmmaker it is not your job to imagine reality but rather to capture it as truthfully as possible.
Over a period of a few weeks we followed the Baka as they hunted and fished and tried to merely capture their reality – not always easily done.
The film was almost complete, but we were missing one crucial element… elephants and gorillas, the big boys. We gave up in the new park and realised that we needed a more controlled environment. Across the border in the Central African Republic we gained access to film in Dzanga Sangha National Park – a little gem with an incredible elephant clearing in the forest and a group of relatively habituated gorillas. We had one interesting encounter with the silverback on one of out shoot days where he came charging at as out of a clearing. Of course my camera was pointed in the other direction and all that was on my mind was “Don’t make eye contact!” as he stood there grunting just 10m away.
The Central African rainforests are changing so quickly. The rate of deforestation is difficult to describe. People have long spoken about peak oil, but now they have begun to speak about peak timber and a time when these great forest might actually dwindle.
I often think about people after a shoot and in a strange way it never seems real. One never thinks about what happens when you leave a place, but as I write this Onja may be sitting by a fire during a rainstorm, or trudging through the forest picking wild seasonal fruit and all the while, the chainsaws are buzzing.