Friday, 5 May 2017

GHOSTS OF OUR FOREST - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 Hot Docs Hot Pick - Music Lives

The music of the Batwa survives amidst displacement.
Ghosts of Our Forest (2017)
Dir. Daniel Roher

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The Batwa of Uganda have been displaced from their centuries-old ancestral home in the jungle for some twenty five years. They live between two worlds. Forcibly removed (at gunpoint no less) from the natural habitat of the dwindling mountain gorilla population, these people were dumped on the outskirts of the city with no compensation nor training to prepare them for a way of life in diametric contrast to the one they knew. They have suffered prejudice, poverty, substance abuse, exploitation and Christian colonization.

Their land is now a national park and they are not allowed to enter the lush forests without permission. Some even have official sanction to take white tourists into the park on tours in which they reenact the way of life of these gentle, pygmy tribes. What the Batwa retain is music - singing is their very soul and now they hope to use it to educate younger generations of Batwa in the history and culture of their people, but most importantly to expose their plight to the rest of the world.

Daniel Roher's fine documentary Ghosts of Our Forest is as sad and haunting as it is joyous and uplifting - his deft natural filmmaking instincts allow us to have our cake and eat it too.

The primary focus is on the Batwa Music Club as the prepare for a big concert in Kampala. Whether the group is practising or delivering the film's climactic live performance, the film allows us to soar with these brilliant musicians as they fill our hearts with the sheer beauty of their people and historic way of life.

We must pay a price for this joy, however, and the film presents a series of harrowing interviews in which we learn about the suffering of the Batwa. One story is especially chilling; an old woman describes how she was collecting dead firewood on the edge of the forest when she was approached by park rangers who beat and tortured her. If it hadn't been for the quick thinking on the part of a farm boy who witnessed the brutality and sounded an alarm to the rest of the Batwa community, she would have been dragged deeper into the forest and executed.

This is but one of several sad stories related. Roher spends a good deal of time letting us in on the former way of life these people had in their jungle paradise; much of this is extremely joyous and deeply contrasts the present conditions of the uprooted Batwa. He even points his cameras in the direction of the gorillas who now live alone in the forest. We realize how the Batwa and gorillas would have co-habitated in peace for so long and that the government's forcible removal of these people was cruel and frankly, just plain stupid.

And then there are the "ghosts", the ancestors who roam the forests without the benefit of the living spirits of their progeny. Through both music and rich imagery, Roher's film instills us with an indelible sense of a time and place that seems long ago and far away, yet close enough that we, along with the Batwa can see it, touch it and feel it.

It's an important film. One hopes it will help the government of Uganda see the light and perhaps, someday soon, allow the Batwa to return to their ancestral homeland, to reunite with their ghosts and the natural spirit of their culture.


Ghosts of Our Forest enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.