In more ways than one, Forest of the Dancing Spirits stood out from the rest at Hot Docs this year. Director Linda Västrik shared the incredible tale of how the film ended up being 13 years in the making.
13 years ago Linda Västrik heard a song that brought her to a rainforest in The Republic of Congo. Here she met the Aka people and their mythological gods, the dancing spirits. Despite the enchanting mythology and the often exoticised people of the deep forest, the film’s gaze on the Akas (more popularly known as pygmies) is neither romantic nor anthropological. Rather the film is based on identification and intimacy. And like all good tales, it’s both specific and universal.
The film is set in an isolated camp in a Congolese forest about 15 days walk from the nearest airport. The village and thus the lifestyle of the Akas are threatened with extinction by the gradual expansion of international tree logging companies, but this is on the fringe of a story about love, faith, and community.
The film beautifully ties together the story of Akaya’s struggle to have a child and save her relationship, with an intimate portrait of a tight-knit community and its mythology of the creation – or rather discovery – of the world. As one of the elderly women overbearingly explains to the director: “Linda, there is so much you don’t know.”
When Linda first travelled to Congo in 2000, she was 26 and the country was in the midst of a brutal civil war. I ask her what prompted her to travel to meet the Akas.
“I had just finished my last film and couldn’t find any motivation to start a new project. Then, by accident, I heard this song and it felt like, when you’re a child and your mother’s hug makes you feel like everything will be ok. So, I had a sense that the people who made this music knew something about life and I had to meet them. “
I wanted to travel and work without using bribes, both because bribes attract assholes and it makes you a target of violence.
But the travel directions for the Aka village weren’t exactly readily available and Linda had to look through the only available maps, she could find; colonial aerial maps of the 900,000 hectare forest from the 1940s. She comments: “If mapping were better and more updated there would be much less corruption in the use of land and resources.” Through her research and contact with former missionaries, she managed to work out where to travel; thus began a long, complicated and dangerous journey.
“Bribes are the most common way of getting things done, and I wanted to travel and work without using bribes, both because bribes attract assholes and it makes you a target of violence. As a white woman in central Africa you’re already exposed, so if word gets out that you’re prone to giving bribes and carry around cash, you will never get rid of gangsters.”
She travelled through Cameroon, where she went through a long process in order to get the necessary permits to travel to her destination. At the prime minister’s office she created chaos by refusing to pay bribes and thus bringing the queue to a halt. The people behind her got more and more upset, but she didn’t budge. In the end the prime minister himself asked to speak to her. She explained to him that she didn’t want to use bribery because she felt it undermined democracy and she loved his country too much to do that. He was bewildered by this peculiar young woman, but moved by her concern for his country. Not only did he grant her the permission she needed, he also put her in contact with the head of his private military. The colonel is in charge of all road blocks and security, and, despite his reputation for being brutal, he was so happy that Linda wanted to go live with the Akas that he sent her on her way with his personal blessing and protection. So she ended up travelling through the country and the various roadblocks with a letter stating that anyone giving her any trouble would have to deal with the head of the prime minister’s private military. This naturally turned out to be a great advantage. But that’s the short version: In order to prepare herself for the trip ahead she also spent time with the military and the police, joining them on training sessions and making friends with them in the process.
The unorthodox nature of travelling around Central Africa without engaging in bribery is evidenced by the fact that Linda got a lot of hassle from, amongst others, war photographers and National Geographic for disturbing the system.
Linda Västrik’s story in many ways turns our idea of good and bad upside down. She ended up receiving a lot of help from people traditionally cast as ‘villains’ – such as the military and the logging companies – and witnessed a lot of corruption on the part of organisations such as WWF and National Geographic. She explains: “The photographers from National Geographic were very angry at me because I refused to pay bribes and that made their lives more difficult. And I was really upset by this because they were my heroes and I was hoping to work for them one day.”
Five months later she was in the jungle. Her reputation preceded her and the logging companies were ready to throw her out. But when they saw her impressive collection of papers: the letter from the head of the Cameroon military, the ministry of forest/health/sience and culture, the immigration office and the police/gendamerie/secret police and local police they let her stay. And in the end, they were the ones who helped her out and assisted her with vital information and everyday practicalities. They kept her cash, they paid her bills and they lent her their phones. They gave her information on health and security risks – outbreaks of Ebola and violence.
When Linda got off the bus at the last piece of road, she met an Aka man, who took her to his camp. “He called me his ‘white elephant mother’ and led me by the hand. I was in tears after the long journey and overwhelmed by his kindness.”
The following year she stayed in the village with the Akas, getting to know them and learning the basics of their language. “One of first nights I put up my tent by the river. When I woke up in the morning everyone was standing around the tent, curious to see if I survived. It turned out, I had placed my tent right where the crocodiles used to camp.”
This is, of course, an incredibly naïve approach to the jungle, but Linda’s naivety is a part of the magic and charm of the film. It is obvious she is not telling her story from a comfortable, safe position, but trying to navigate as she goes along. And this creates an intimacy between the Akas and herself and thus between them and us. In one scene, where the children have their teeth filed to a point in accordance with their custom, they mock her for her square teeth and lack of family. They say to the child: “Do you want to be alone and with square teeth like Linda?”
Director Linda Västrik
During the first year, she didn’t shoot a single thing, and it was only thanks to an arts grant from the Stiftelsen Framtidans Kultur (The Foundation for the Culture of the Future) that she was able to finance the trip. The next time she returned was in 2005, with development support from SVT and SFI. She brought a sound recordist, a S16-mm ARRI camera and rolls. Yes, she shot everything on film. Partly because mechanical devices are more reliable in the jungle, and partly because she wanted to make a more beautiful film than those normally seen on National Geographic. Besides her sound engineer, she ended up with a crew of between two and 60 members, all Aka, who worked with navigating and carrying 2 tons of equipment.
After the first shoot it became clear to her that she was in over her head. She joined forces with EyeSteel, who helped her to finance the project and gave her moral and logistic support: “A film like this needs so much flexibility, so you have to work with someone, you really trust. After all they have to be prepared to get you out if you get stuck in the jungle.”
Linda Västrik was really in love with the Aka women’s myths, but this didn’t sit well with the commissioning editors: “My main interest was the mythology, but the financiers didn’t want an anthropological, feminist film, so we tried to push the myths aside. But in the edit we realised we needed them.”
And indeed, the myth of discovery, and of men, women, and love run through the forest and intertwine with the drama of life; the fundamental desire to have children and to be loved. It is both a beautiful and a clever choice to let the wisdom of old tales be told together with present day needs and wants. With Forest of the Dancing Spirits, Västrik has managed to make a film that immediately strikes a familiar chord in the viewer and allows us to identify with the Akas. And to the man in the audience who was annoyed that she didn’t clarify how small they are: Please, we’ve had enough of that. _