A vast expanse of ocean. A small boat, bobbing with uncertainty amongst looming waves. It’s an image that’s been created many times in many iterations across the cinema landscape - in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, in The Perfect Storm, more recently in Ang Lee’s opus Life of Pi. And now, also, in Senegalese director Moussa Touré’s latest film, La Pirogue.
One of the two gala screenings set for the upcoming 20th edition of the African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF), La Pirogue is Touré’s third film in twenty years and, much like his sophomore effort TGV (1998), it is a film about survival, a distinct sort of survival - African survival.
The struggle and eventual perseverance of people of the diaspora has always been a favorite topic occasionally amongst ourselves but especially in the West, where somehow the more pain and suffering the brown and black folk experience on screen, the more satisfying the final act when they achieve some sort of redemption, learn a lesson, deliver a stirring and emotional speech. It’s a narrative seemingly inherent to the full realization of the true African experience. From the quiet sorrow of Diouana in Le Noire de..., to the visceral and often unpleasant imagery of films like War Witch and Kinshasa, the idea of African survival is predicated on the belief that in order to enjoy life, specifically the African life, the black life, we must define ourselves by our pain.
In La Pirogue, a reluctant fisherman named Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) agrees to captain a small, open air fishing boat with a faulty motor, a few leaks, and thirty men and a woman - all from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, all determined to make the harrowing 900 mile voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain and something like a better life. It’s a harrowing journey, a journey that puts the Senegalese immigrants under extreme physical, mental, and emotional distress. And as horrible as their journey is, it still, somehow, seems righteous - it’s that noble struggle, again. That African hustle. The important thing, the beauty in Toure’s approach, though, is that it does manage to find a certain balance between pain and perseverance - and it does this by rejecting the idea that the struggle - rejecting the very notion that the African identity is tied so tightly to misfortune.
Where La Pirogue goes on its own Hollywood journey remains to be seen. Buzz at Cannes, where it screened in the Un Certain Regard section, garnered it places in festivals all over Europe, as well as an October theatrical release in France.
On the 27th, it debuts in the United States for the first time, and the response it gets here may very well fall in line with the responses of other movies that have followed it’s formula but failed to follow through. Because there is always, of course, the African struggle - when the lights go up and the buzz begins to fade by degrees - a reality most films have to face, but perhaps more potent in the film world of the diaspora, where every “good” film is an oddity and an anomaly, something to be admired but rarely ever truly understood.
La Pirogue screens on Tuesday, November 27 at 7pm at Teachers College, the Cowin Center.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Digital Spy, Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.