I’m sure you’ve all been paying attention to Europe’s so-called "migration crisis," as the flow of desperate migrants from Northern Africa continues to rise, hoping to reach Europe in search of "better lives" for themselves and their families, with many drowning in the Mediterranean, amid a surge in overcrowded boats heading for Europe.
It’s been headline news for months now, seemingly intensifying in recent weeks, as EU countries are strongly urged to do more to assist – whether in beefing up maritime patrols in the Mediterranean to disrupt boat traffic, or championing the rights of migrants, acknowledging their plight, and sharing the "refugee burden," or some confluence of both.
Cinematically, Senegalese filmmaker Moussa Touré’s 3rd feature film in 20 years, "La Pirogue" ("The Pirogue") – a Cannes Film Festival 2012 selection – succeeds in capturing the dilemmas facing these desperate men and women, telling a powerful story that is certainly topical and internationally relevant.
The film, which made its world premiere at Cannes (in the Un Certain Regard section), is a moving story of a group of Senegalese men who set off for Europe on a simple fishing boat, hoping for a better life. Baye Laye is the captain of a fishing pirogue who dreams of earning a better living for his family. When he is offered to lead one of the many pirogues that head towards Europe via the Canary Islands, he reluctantly accepts the job, knowing the dangers that lie ahead. He has to take 30 men to Spain. These men don’t all understand each other. Some have never even seen the sea and nobody knows what awaits them…
A pirogue is a small, light, flat-bottomed boat that can only hold a few people at a time (let alone 30), used traditionally as fishing boats, and are certainly not meant for long distance travel. They are usually propelled by paddles, although motors are increasingly being used in some regions. The trip from Dakar, Senegal, to the Canary Islands is roughly 900 miles, depending on your mode of travel.
Need more be said?
These trips aren’t uncommon, as these men, who often have to save up money to pay for the ride (roughly the equivalent of $2,000 according to one report), seek better lives for themselves; some don’t make it all the way through to their destinations (the Red Cross estimates that as many as 1000+ people die attempting to make the 900-mile crossing each year, reporting on a boat with the mummified bodies of 11 men found 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, drifting. It is thought that workers originally boarded the vessel in Senegal).
And those who are lucky enough to make it are, especially in recent years, met with hostility by the destination’s locals. Often waiting for them, once they disembark, are officers of the law who typically pack the immigrants on to buses and transfer them to the courts, and then overloaded detention centers.
So it’s a really a matter of life and death, which certainly provides for a compelling story (or compelling stories) for a feature film. Moussa Touré’s "La Pirogue" is just one of the most-recent. Another is Jonas Carpignano’s much-anticipated feature film debut "Mediterranea," which is making its world premiere at the La Semaine de la Critique (International Critics’ Week) – a parallel section of the Cannes Film Festival that focuses on discovering new talents – this week. The timely film follows a young Burkinabe man who leaves his native Burkina Faso in search of a better life, making the perilous journey to Italy, only to find he’s unprepared for the intolerance facing immigrants in that country.
And I’m sure there will be others to come… both fiction and non-fiction.
ArtMattan Films released "La Pirogue" successfully in 2013, in a limited theatrical run in over 30 different markets in the USA and Canada. The film is now available on DVD for sale, as part of a "Great African Films Vol. 4" disc package that also includes other award-winning films from continental Africa, like fellow Senegalese filmmaker, the late (she died 2 years ago) Khady Sylla’s incisive documentaries, "Colobane Express" (an observational documentary following 24 hours in the daily lives of drivers and passengers of public transportation in Dakar) and "The Silent Monologue" (a 45-minute analysis of the life of maids in Senegal, reminiscent of Ousmane Sembene’s classic "Black Girl"). You can pick up a copy for just $12.99 right now via the company’s merchant website here: http://africandiasporavideo.com/product_info.php/products_id/88.
Check out a trailer for "La Pirogue" below: