Television Reviews : ‘Baka’: Captivating Look at Another Culture

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Sometimes the best story is the one simply told. Case in point: “Baka: People of the Forest,” an hourlong “National Geographic” special airing tonight at 8 on Channels 28, 15 and 24, and at 9 on Channel 50.

“Baka” is a straightforward look at the lives of a small group of pygmies in southeastern Cameroon and, in this case, straightforward does not mean dull: “Baka” is an understated, captivating study of another culture.

Producer-writer Phil Agland and associate producers Lisa Silcock and Michael Harrison--all of whom lived with the Baka for two years--have produced a rare, poignant glimpse into the everyday life of a little-known tribe.


Concentrating on the lives of one family--Likano, his wife, Deni, and their sons, Yeye and Ali--”Baka” fully engages the viewer while showing the story of this hunter-gatherer society through the family’s words and actions. Following the family as they search for the peke fruit, a staple of their diet, prepare natural medicines, and get ready for Deni’s coming child, “Baka’s” recording of the similarities between modern culture and this “primitive” society are striking.

The family is only a peripheral part of one riveting sequence, waiting on the ground while a determined villager climbs a 140-foot-tall tree--a perilous barefoot ascent that takes several hours--to raid a bee’s nest of its honey. The climber stuns the bees with smoking leaves and a cyanide compound, just one example among many of the wondrous pharmacopeia of the Baka.

“Baka” touches on the greatest problem facing the Baka--the destruction of their homeland, the rain forest--with a nice subtlety that other documentary makers could do well to study: The subtitles let the pygmies speak for themselves and the narration (by actor Denzel Washington) contains little strident preaching.

Through its unadorned scenes of parents rearing children, friends talking and people working, “Baka” skillfully drives home its point: This endangered group of pygmies may seem exotic, but their humanity is universal.