Senegal’s The Pirogue looks at the essence of cinema

When France’s former President Sarkozy made the troubling statement “The tragedy of Africa is that the African man has not sufficiently gone down in history” his pragmatism also shamed the fact that African filmmaking has not found its place in the Western record of cinema history. Sarkozy’s controversial statement could be well understood by African American filmmakers and filmgoers who dream of Hollywood–and don’t they all?

pirogueThe indifference that most film critics and moviegoers have toward African cinema gets addressed by The Pirogue, a Senegalese film now showing at Film Forum. The Pirogue–French for lifeboat or canoe–is distinguished by director Moussa Toure’s concentration on the faces of his characters, Senegalese natives who risk their lives on a boat trip to the European mainland, hoping to better their economic prospects by migrating to Spain and joining the continent’s economy.

It’s a multi-character story in the egalitarian tradition that influenced the narratives of filmmakers from Eisenstein to Pontecorvo, but Toure’s technique feels personally close. His narrative of interweaved individual stories presents each character’s face for its deepest expression. Though not quite at the level of Carl Dreyer’s magnificent The Passion of Joan of Arc, Toure concentrates on dark, handsome, thoughtful, emotional faces. Unlike those blank black African faces crowding the end of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, Toure investigates the complexity personal of interaction as well as the collective ache to improve social conditions–a timeless story brought up to the iPhone age..

The Pirogue’s Senegalese natives who yearn to grasp opportunities in the countries of their dependence dare assert the post-Colonial dream at the heart of such revolutionary philosophies as Frantz Fanon and Aimee Cesaire. But The Pirogue is built on Toure’s visual intensity. The opening sequence is a metaphoric show of Senegalese wrestling culture where powerfully built men vie with each other to the cheers of an implicitly sympathetic crowd enjoying the primal post-colonial test. Toure creates his compelling drama through faces expressing desire and responding to fate (the devastating voyage, the social conflicts that never end).

If you saw Ang Lee’s voyage movie, the showy, overwrought Life of Pi, then The Pirogue’s powerful simple boat trip will be especially impressive. More important than 3D, CGI extravagance is the emotional force of people struggling to rise up while holding on to their humanity. Toure faces the music of global politics and indifferent nature; his portraitist images sing.

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