Runs Fri., Aug. 16–Thurs., Aug. 22 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 87 minutes.
Where’s Matt Damon when you need him? So soon after Elysium, in which poor, desperate migrants risk their lives to reach the prosperous shore (well, space station), we have two films this week on the same subject. Here, a Senegalese fisherman pilots his boat (or pirogue) full of fellow asylum-seekers toward the Canary Islands. In Terraferma, still more impoverished Africans are washing onto the beach of a Sicilian island. During SIFF over the past decade, we’ve seen several similar movies from France, Holland, England, even Switzerland, yet American filmmakers rarely consider our own southern border. (Maria Full of Grace and A Better Life are two recent notable exceptions.) Inside Fortress Europe and across the Mediterranean, artists are more willing than governments to consider the cost of maintaining barriers against the relentless tide of refugees.
Director Moussa Touré begins his compact, affecting drama at a raucous wrestling match full of folk rituals and religious blessings. It’s an exuberant scene with the athletes in traditional costumes, invested with centuries of animist meaning. Yet the spectators mostly wear Western clothing, and some have eyes glued to their cellphones. Among them is Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye), who’s being pressured by a smuggler to sail a small boat seven days north to the Canary Islands, controlled by Spain, which might grant his clients refugee status. With a wife and son to support, Baye Laye is eventually persuaded; his layabout brother, a would-be musician, joins the other 30 aboard the open-topped pirogue.
As Baye Laye sets his fee, selects his crew, and says goodbye to his family (possibly for years), The Pirogue takes on the aspect of an old Western. Here is the stoic leader of the wagon train, full of optimistic migrants, trying to maintain order despite various secrets, lies, and factions among the voyagers. Baye Laye has a GPS in his pocket and two outboard engines for power, but equally important are the talismans and fetishes adorning the boat and its passengers (one even has a lucky chicken whose fate you can guess). This is very much a voyage of faith, and some confusing flashbacks among the passengers play like ecstatic visions. They’re caught between realms in an unforgiving purgatory, and none of them can swim.