Crazy, Stupid, Guns
Touré has mostly worked as a documentarian, and it shows throughout much of the first part of the film, where he’s interested in the surroundings as much as the exposition. He gazes raptly at the seaside shacks, dusty streets and yellow-walled compounds—so raptly that you forget that these are staples of African cinema and see them anew. He also looks lovingly, and protractedly, at faces, as do Baye Laye and his wife, Kiné (Diodio Ndiaye), when they caress each other in an almost wordless farewell, as if trying to memorize one another’s bodies. There is always time in La Pirogue to register tactile sensation, or to evoke the splash and splatter of the animistic charms that Baye Laye throws down when he leaves his home behind.
Another case of coloristic superabundance: Baye Laye’s fishing boat, which proves to be a character (the title character at that) as much as a setting. As long, narrow and gently curved as a banana leaf, slapping through the waves with its bow lifted up, Baye Laye’s boat is decorated with a maze of bright, multicolored patterns and the letters of its name, Goor Fitt (Courage and Strength), and has a tall rudder post at which the helmsman stands, adding a dashing vertical element to Touré’s compositions. It’s a good thing that the pirogue is entertaining in itself, because the challenge for Touré as a director, and you as a viewer, is to remain confined in it for most of the movie. Thirty-one characters and a hen take their places against the sloping sides, under the wooden thwarts, and there they remain amid the good, the bad and the utterly rotten until almost the end.
They reveal themselves as types, you’d say, more than as individuals, except that their indelible faces and utterly confident performances make them register as singular. Among the souls in Baye Laye’s worried care are his second-in-command and ingenuous young friend Kaba (Babacar Oualy), a scarified aspiring soccer player; Lansana (Laïty Fall), a laughing, self-styled tough guy with a Sean Combs face, who has organized this people-smuggling operation and is ready at all times to clash with the captain; Baye Laye’s mushroom-haired younger brother Abou (Malamine Dramé), a seeming iPhone-besotted layabout who proves to be industrious as both a musician and a fisherman; and Samba (Balla Diarra), the red-capped, potato-nosed spiritual leader of half a village’s worth of Muslim tribesmen, who provides much of the moral ballast for the journey.
If there are occasional lapses in the storytelling—notably a sequence where Touré loses faith in his images and resorts to having these characters speak their deepest thoughts in voiceover—there are many more surprises: a funny ruse with a roll of breath mints, a foggy dream of trees on the African plain, a boisterous parody of political oratory (including Nicolas Sarkozy’s). As for the biggest nonsurprise, the storm, it’s as impressive and terrifying as a natural disaster can be without its creators having recourse to the computer-generated imagery from Life of Pi.
A pirogue, as I’ve learned through a little research, is a canoe-like boat built for shallow coastal waters. It is not suited for a week-long voyage on the open sea; but over and over again, people actually crowd into these boats and dare to set off for Europe. As the vessel, so the movie. La Pirogue is small compared with most Euro-American productions (although the producers did find the money for a helicopter shot) and has its vulnerabilities—but its makers trusted it to do the big job of carrying the story of African emigration, and it has come through beautifully.
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