Monday, January 21, 2013

Emigrants at sea: Moussa Touré's THE PIROGUE opens at NYC's Film Forum

Over the past decade we've heard (from our news media) and seen (via plenty of narrative and documentary films) the situation of immigrants in our own country and -- if we follow the news and movies from foreign lands -- elsewhere around the globe. Generally, of course, we read about and see third-world citizens trying to make their way in first-world countries. What distinguishes THE PIROGUE -- a new film from Senegalese director Moussa Touré (shown below), adapted by Éric Névé and David Bouchet from the novel of Abasse Ndione -- is that we're dealing solely with the emigrants before and as they leave their homeland, discovering the sacrifices they must make, petty and grand (right through, sometimes, to the greatest of all), on the off-chance that a better life awaits them elsewhere.

The film begins with an event and a set of characters so different from what the film will soon become that we simply drop our expectations and go with the colorful and (to our eyes) exotic costumes, locations and characters. We're soon at a man-to-man, hand-to-hand combat event (below), the outcome of which reflects and affects the lives of several of the characters we get to know. (Compare this black-man-on-black-man combat with the one in Tarantino's current Django for an object lesson in humanity trumping "cool," ugly sleaze.) One thing we notice almost immediately: This African country seems caught between modernity (cell phones are all over the place) and tradition; the call of the "new and better" against the security (scarce as it may be) of home and the tried-and-true.

The pull of these two extremes exerts itself within families and over generations, with the younger, as usual, going toward the new, and the older seemingly divided between poles. Fortunately none of this is driven home at all stridently. It's all just there in the beha-vior of the characters we meet: dad, mom & family, including dad's younger brother, who's just itching to have his day in the west.

Dad (a fine job from newcomer Souleymane Seye Ndiaye, above) turns out to be the best boat captain in town -- he mans the pirogue of the title and if he agrees to take a boatload of emigrants across the ocean to Spain, he'll be paid handsomely. If he refuses, little brother (nowhere near ready to captain a trip like this) will lead the voyage instead.

Roughly the first third of this 87-minute movie is devoted to the set-up, the difficult decision and the preparations; the rest comprises the trip itself and its aftermath. Director Touré proves a good choice for the project; his work is alternately brawny when necessary, quietly thoughtful at other times. How he and his writers and cast handle the problems -- major and minor -- that occur during the voyage make this movie real, exciting, surprising, constantly involving and above all humane.

This is also a beautiful film. The colors are gorgeous, as are many of the actors. The boat itself -- its unusual shape (like a huge canoe) and the manner in which is moves on the water -- seems something special, too.

An interesting movie to honor this Martin Luther King holiday, most of all, this fine film places us firmly in the minds and souls of these emigrants, helping us understand the desperation and the hope that drives them forward. But to what?

The Pirogue, from ArtMattan Productions, opens this Wednesday, January 23, in New York City at Film Forum. I hope other venues around the country will be forthcoming. Click here to see upcoming playdates as they happen.

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