Saturday, February 25, 2012

Baka: People of the Rainforest

I just caught this extraordinary 1987 documentary about the Baka forest people of Cameroon, and I'm so glad. A friend recommended it and I forgot until just a few hours before it disappeared from the iPlayer.

It's the story of mother Deni, father Likano, their sons, four-year-old Ali, eight-year-old Yayi and the rest of their extended family.

For a lot of the film we see the Baka through four-year-old Ali's eyes as he learns about life in the forest from his mother and father.

The film follows them from the end of their annual three-month forest ramble, as they hunt and gather, and their return to their dry season camp until the rains come.

At their camp, things there get a bit heated as Babu, one of the younger men, declares his intention to take a second wife.

Likano, the father of the girl, doesn't like the idea. He becomes sick with anguish and accuses the suitor of cursing him.

Babu takes the "truth drug", a poisonous bark that will kill him if he is guilty of sorcery.

The village attempt to heal the rift by calling upon Jengi, the forest spirit, who comes to their camp and dances his way through the night, thrilling and scaring the villagers.

The film also captures their hunting and medicine practices, and the incredible search for honey; where Mawungu, one of the bravest men, climbs 40 meters into the forest canopy to hack out the nest of killer bees armed only with some smoking leaves and an axe.

There is also a cameo appearance from the awesome honey badger.

Its an amazing feat of film making.

The creator of the film, its director and cameraman, Phil Agland recently returned to the area to shoot a follow up, 25 years after the original.

Unfortunately I missed that follow up film, because I am an idiot. But something tells me that things have not gone incredibly well for the Baka in the intervening years. There is this incredibly moving clip of them watching the movie for the first time.

It makes me think of the stories of the Tellem people in Mali, the hunter gatherers who lived on the Bandiagara escarpment before the Bambara arrived, fleeing the Songhai empire. The Tellem were called pygmies too, and were said to have magic powers. They lived in mud huts that were only reachable by climbing the giant creepers that covered the cliffs at the time, a feat the larger Bambara were not capable of.

The Tellem intermarried with the Bambara and their descendants are known as the Dogon, but it is also said that the Tellem were pushed out as the forest was chopped down for farmland and the desert encroached.

It is said they were pushed south, toward Cameroon, although I'm sure there were plenty of forest people there already, and that might not even be true. Maybe they just disappeared.

I'd love to speak to Mr Agland about his film, to discover how he actually did it (I'm assuming it was filmed on 16mm celluloid stock). How he gained their trust and got them to open up their lives.

I have some questions about how structured some of the elements are in the narrative. It seems extraordinary that he should have been able to shoot a forest cat eating an antelope and Deni's reaction as she worries about where her children are when the cat's around.

In one scene in particular where Likano and Deni are bickering about who should fix the hut during a rainstorm ("Its leaking" "You fix it, it's on your side") it occurred to me that they are being filmed going to sleep with very bright lights on for the cameras. How did that affect their behaviour?

I read elsewhere that they spent two years with the family just getting to know them, before filming a thing.

In the clip I saw of the follow up film it is revealed the daughter you see born at the end of the first film was named Camera.

I'm totally bowled over by this film.

Some of the most moving scenes are when the camera just watches Deni and we see her concern over what is the best thing to do for her children.

Or when Likano is teaching his son about chimpanzees, compared to his anguish at the responsibilities of fatherhood.

Or when Ali, looking at his baby sister, asks his father to throw the new baby away.

It just goes to show that even deep in the rainforest, our common concerns -at their roots- are all the same.

You can buy the video (VHS!) here from, unfortunately not the British version, narrated by the brilliant Ian Holm, but the American one narrated by Denzel Washington


  1. Phil Agland is working hard for the Baka people. You can buy a copy of his documentary (Ive got both) from his website which is under-construction but wonderful.

  2. Dr Evans, thank you for the links!


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