The Musings of a Cinematic Globetrotter

The Forest (Central African Republic, 2003)

Directed by Bassek ba Kobhio and Didier Ouénangaré, The Forest is a Pan-African co-production set in the Central African Republic. A twist on the white savior complex, the film presents the story of a man named Gonaba, who has returned to the CAR from France with a Western education, set on helping his country.

The Prodigal Son’s Return

Upon Gonaba’s return, a ferryman teases him, calling him a “white man” and saying how stupid it is to return to a country where there’s “a new set of ministers every month,” and where all they have for every meal is manioc. Ten years pass, and Gonaba is now an education minister. He fashions himself a benevolent master to his conscientious servant, Paul. During an Independence Day parade, Gonaba’s internal monologue reveals the extent of his scorn for his home country: “Tackiness and ostentation is what the country’s all about, 40 years after Independence. Heavy jackets under the hot sun, because it’s modern, even in a country of superstition and black magic.” He lists all of the participants in the parade: “policeman corrupted to their bones; war veterans forgotten by France and even by ourselves, brought back to life just for the parade; young, barely pubescent girls, selling themselves to those who can afford young flesh; students, well raised from the cradle on, praising on command, a benevolent government, while their teachers strike six months a year because they’re not getting paid,” all on display for “the massive unconscious partiers who just love this kind of noisy boasting.”

Afterwards, at a reception for prominent figures, Gonaba meets a glamorous bar owner named Simone. There’s a palpable connection between them. Some of the bigwigs throw scraps of food to a group of Biaka (“pygmy”) dancers performing for their entertainment. When Gonaba chooses to join in the dancing instead, he is called “a shame to our government.” The Prefect refers to the Biakas as “a tourist attraction for our country” and “a natural wealth we should exploit.” Gonaba disagrees: “Their strength has always fascinated me,” he confides in Simone. “Slavery, colonization, the sole party has deprived us of our personality, our soul, while centuries of humiliation didn’t change them a bit.” She replies: “You read too much. You dream with your eyes open. I don’t care if you’re right or wrong. You’re different. I like that.” Things move fast between them, because after all, “long courtships are for white men”—at least according to Gonaba. He seems eager to prove to Simone that he’s not white.

Gonaba’s “Civilizing” Project

Gonaba continues to be appalled at the treatment of Biaka servants at the hands of his constituents. In order to effect change, he resolves to join the Biakas. Simone is aghast: “Why go live with these savages? To educate them? So they can rebel?” To educate them, yes, but “to fight injustice,” he says. Disillusioned by Simone’s attitude, Gonaba tells her that the way she looks at Biakas is the same way that many whites look at Africans. His bridge to Simone thus thoroughly burnt, Gonaba befriends a Biaka servant named Manga. He tells Manga that, according to both Rousseau and Barthélémy Boganda have said that everyone is equal. Gonaba sees the relationship as mutually instructive; he will teach Manga to fight injustice, while Manga will teach him “the secret” to Biaka resilience.

The patriarch of Manga’s village initially thinks that Gonaba is the Gwati, or Great Spirit, until he realizes that Gonaba has Manga’s necklace. As Gonaba imperfectly adjusts to village life, he doggedly tries to “teach” the Biakas, giving them lessons in French, but they are unenthused. But Gonaba doesn’t give up; he continues to disrupt village life. He tells the villagers that he’s going to build them a large, well-ventilated, rectangular hut; the problem is, it’s on the ancestor’s land, and thus it’s forbidden for him to build there. “You shouldn’t do things out of habit,” he tells them. He just doesn’t get it, does he?

The patriarch tells Gonaba “The children don’t need your white man’s knowledge. They want to know the truth of the world.” He explains to Gonaba the story of why gorillas don’t have tails. It looks like Gonaba is beginning to understand. He falls in love with a Biaka woman named Kali, who later gives birth to their son, occasioning a village-wide celebration. “The ancestors could accept him now,” say some of the village men of Gonaba. Gonaba tells Kali that they will go live in the city, so that his son can be “the first Pygmy to go through higher schooling,” but she will have none of it: “Our life is here.” Seemingly conceding in his efforts to “civilize” the Biakas, Gonaba, now united with the villagers by blood, begins teaching the children Biaka folklore instead of French literacy. Finally satisfied, the patriarch says “You are now a son of this village.” First, though, he must undergo an initiation ceremony—and here is where we learn that Gonaba’s change of heart is quite superficial. During his initiation, it begins raining—a bad omen, they tell him. But Gonaba refuses to end the ceremony just on account of a little rain. And indeed, tragedy strikes, prompting Gonaba to leave the village, where he no longer feels welcome.

Gonaba’s Burden

What makes The Forest an interesting film is how it recasts Kipling’s “white man’s burden,” placing the imagined burden of the civilizing project on the shoulders of a European-educated African. Through this unconventional narrative, the film underscores the aftershocks of colonialism in a post-colonial Africa—which, like other post-colonial places, is not fully free of its colonial past—and how the specters of colonialism continue to contribute to ethnic divisions within African nations. During his education in France, Gonaba imbibes the ideas of Rousseau and, presumably, other Western thinkers. Seeking to uncritically bring these ideas to life in the Central African Republic, he fails to understand the lifeways of the Biakas, and unwittingly delivers death upon a Biaka village. But importantly, the film isn’t all about the inability of a European-educated Central African to understand the Biakas; it also showcases Biaka culture in what is ultimately a remarkably respectful way.

Up Next…

For the next post, I’ll discuss three short films, each depicting a traditional Oceanian story:

Footsteps (Cook Islands, 2014)

‘Aho’eitu (Tonga, 2015)

Maisa, the Chamoru Girl Who Saves Guåhan (Guam, 2015)

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