When Jose Manuel Novoa, Madrid-based director of the docudrama Eyengui: God of Dreams, attempted the first-ever Pygmy casting call among the Baka people of southeast Cameroon, he encountered a few difficulties. For starters, almost all of the 300 tribe members were unable to pass the first test: looking into the camera, stating their names and why they were there. Recalls Novoa, ‘Just when I thought I would have to change the script because no one would be able to play the part [of the protagonist], Anguende appeared. He was a born actor, the ‘Robert deNiro of the jungle,’ as we affectionately began to call him.’
Such challenges are par for the course for Novoa, who has directed over 85 documentary films over the last 12 years, along with doc series such as Ancestral Africa and Third Planet and the recent Transglobe Films production The Last Nomads, among others.
This last series brought Novoa to Cameroon, where a Baka tribe chief told him about a logging company that had set up shop near the Pygmies, and began cutting down trees, thereby upsetting the balance of their world, also known as the God Eyengui, who is the jungle itself. The loggers hired Bantu sorcerers (who are said to practice cannibalism) to scare away the tribe, and the Pygmies ultimately moved to another area. Novoa wove a script around this anecdote, incorporating traditional Pygmy customs into the narrative.
‘Through the script, which is simple but full of intrigue, the viewer discovers who the Pygmies are, where they live, and what their beliefs are,’ he explains. ‘It is a formula that stimulates the viewer, who is perhaps tired of seeing traditional anthropological documentaries. The Baka Pygmies interpret and tell their own story.’
Filmed over eight months and completed last December, Novoa worked with Madrid-based prodco Transglobe, along with Pedro and Agustin Almodovar’s El Deseo to produce the €480,650 (US$600,000) doc. Distributed internationally by Transglobe-owned Gondwana Films, there are English and Spanish-subtitled versions, and the latter was released theatrically in Madrid and Barcelona last year. France 5 aired a dubbed French version in December.
The partnership between Transglobe and El Deseo is also spawning other projects: the in-production feature-length doc Caravan, Salt Merchant, directed by Gerardo Olivares, as well as Novoa’s in-development doc about the Peruvian tomb of the Lord of Sipan – one of the most important archeological finds in South America.
‘The union of the two [companies] was a very interesting experiment,’ says Novoa. ‘It meant bringing together the versatility and ability to improvise of documentary teams with the orthodoxy of cinema.’
Novoa initially wanted to film Eyengui in the Central African Republic, where Pygmy customs are more authentic. A war in the area prevented this, and his team crossed the border to Cameroon. The local police took the opportunity to wield power, says Novoa: ‘We only had to cross the river between the countries, but police from both sides took advantage. They were always carrying out absurd searches, which were resolved with money, but made us lose a lot of time.’
Language was also a barrier. At times directions had to go through four translators. Additionally, the occasional fight broke out when food was served. As a hunter-gatherer society, the Baka don’t store food, but rather go hunting or fishing, then cook right away and eat until it is finished.
‘Little by little, we familiarised ourselves with them and they with us,’ says Novoa. ‘For them, it was extraordinary to be with so many white men and so many machines – we must have seemed like aliens. For us, it was incredible to witness our own prehistory and see that the Baka are a happy people. That was fascinating.’