“Between 2005 and 2010, lured by the mirrors of the West, over 30,000 West Africans have attempted to brave the Atlantic Ocean, using simple pirogues. Over 5,000 of them perished. This film is dedicated to their memory.”
This is the text that ends La Pirogue, a Senegalese film by Moussa Touré charting the common seafaring expedition of illegal immigration from West Africa to Spain in the midst of the current European economic crisis. They do this in pirogues, in a trip that is very dangerous and often results in death. Compassionate but carefully avoiding saccharine sensibilities, the risks, struggles and hopes of these characters are the center of focus. Seeing a film from this region isn’t common, so it is a privilege to get a peek into a cultural representation from this Senegalese filmmaker.
The people on the pirogue represent a widely varied grouping with stark differences in religion, clothing and cultural influences, ambitions and dispositions. Fisherman Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) is the reluctant captain. He eventually accepts the job, leaving his wife and child, for the payment and the hopes of finding something more lucrative now that fish are scarce in the waters around his home. His contentious younger brother Barry (Salif Diallo), who is more clued into Western influences, hopes to become a musician. Throughout, we get acquainted with the pirogue’s passengers as well as some backstory. Among them are Lansana (Laity Fall) the no-nonsense coordinator of the trip, a tribal leader named Abou (Malaminé ‘Yalenguen’ Dramé) and a young stowaway woman named Nafy (Mame Astou Diallo) who sneaks onboard.
The brightly colored pirogue has two levels of shelter on the inside. They have rice, water and a GPS. The journey to Spain is meant to take about a week. Touré gives his characters many realistic problems to face, never letting us forget the risk every person onboard is taking or the threats commonly faced with such a voyage. At one point, they come across another boat floating due to a broken-down engine. They are adrift at sea and out of water. The instinct is of course to help. After all, it could just as easily be their pirogue in this awful predicament if fate determined otherwise. The instinct is to help, but of course they cannot.
At the start of the voyage, the passengers are running on the adrenaline of their decision. They are anxious and scared but keyed up and lively. People inevitably clash, tell jokes, share stories and scuffle about things both crucial and extraneous. There are touching moments and devastating ones too. Touré never lays it on too thick. Featuring a marvelous versatile score by Prince Ibrahima Ndour, this is a humanistic story about people who risk everything for the chance at another shot. It thankfully is not heavy-handed nor does it sanctify the people onboard. It lucidly depict the hopes and struggles of these men and woman. Immigration is an extremely complex issue but Touré uses his moving film to communicate about it in universally relatable terms.