Film Review: The Pirogue

'The Pirogue' is about the voyage of 30 Senegalese who hope that their small boat will carry them to Spain's Canary Islands. Moussa Touré's fictionalized account illustrates the tragic dimensions of the Senegalese diaspora.

Pirogues are the wooden, outboard motorboats of much of coastal Africa. When you first board one as a tourist for a half-day ocean voyage, the captain invites you to see the second outboard motor he carries near the stern of the vessel. Neither the motor itself, made from rebuilt parts, nor its presence aboard the craft, inspires a sense of safety. Only Thor Heyerdah might have considered the pirogue an ocean-going craft. In The Pirogue, 30 Senegalese board the vessel to navigate more than 1,000 miles of the West African seacoast to Spain’s Canary Islands. They, too, are shown that second motor, by the slippery organizer who promises them a trip to paradise.

The characters in Senegalese filmmaker Moussa Touré’s narrative feature all have different reasons for making the journey, including the possibility of jobs abroad. Senegal’s unemployment rate is in double digits, about 12 percent for men and 20 percent for women. Aboard the pirogue, the men and one woman, a stowaway, represent the country’s major ethnicities; they constitute a microcosm of a diverse society in which tribal superstitions, the comforting platitudes of organized religion, and animism all seem to reflect the fading promise of their homeland. One shortcoming is the lone woman, and the fact that Touré seems to imply through her that women bear responsibility for the men’s migration. Her lover, whom she spurns so that she may try her luck abroad, does not survive the voyage.

The Pirogue is inspired by the real-life emigration of Senegalese, tens of thousands of whom have already perished at sea. Touré’s allegorical underpinning transforms this rather predictable plot, ripped from familiar headlines around the world, into a decidedly Senegalese story. The filmmaker studies the visages of his characters for much of the movie, sometimes in extreme close-up, finding there, and illustrating for the audience, the very soul of his native land. Gazing at the high cheekbones and large eyes of Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye), the captain of the pirogue, and the delicately sculpted face of one lachrymose passenger, as well as the smiling beauty of Abou (Malamine Dramé), Baye Laye’s brother, we experience the vast sea and the contrasting confines of the pirogue through the emotions that play across their faces.

As Touré’s direction implies, this is a voyage of the spirit as much as it is of the sea. From the visages we understand that what the sea does not destroy, the diaspora has and will and, with the passage of time, that Senegal, like the pirogue, will be adrift. In keeping with his directorial commitment to a distinctly Senegalese story, Touré begins with a long sequence devoted to a wrestling match. Doing double duty as a metaphor for Baye Laye’s mixed feelings about piloting the pirogue, and as an introduction to the Senegalese form of this entertainment, the scene nevertheless fails to adequately introduce the protagonist or the meaning the sport may lend to the coming narrative. Because ethnic, religious and class distinctions among the characters will be unfamiliar to most audiences, some may feel they are missing the wider significance of the movie, yet on one level, The Pirogue is simply a human-rights film centered on the deleterious effects of migration.

Once the pirogue gets underway, the movie is riveting, sustained by Touré’s vision and an excellent ensemble cast. In an especially dramatic sequence, when the small craft encounters a stranded vessel, the director deftly dispenses with the action, and with dialogue, so that the moral consequences of Baye Laye’s decision lingers, as it will for his passengers. Afterward, in a storm sequence, there are a few long shots of the roiling sea, but mostly we watch the characters in medium shot inside the pirogue struggling to survive the onslaught. Touré twice cuts to the visions of one of the passengers, a holy man who sees in his mind’s eye mainland Africa’s majestic baobab trees. Their ancient limbs provide a wonderful representation of the spirit of Senegal, of what binds these people to one another, and what will sustain them in the future. 

Touré rehearsed his cast for two months, and when production began, he changed elements of the script and direction in order to unsettle his actors. That undoubtedly added to the integrity of their performances, yet it is Touré’s direction which compels the viewer to an awareness of it. The characters’ demeanor marks significant shifts in perspective as the pirogue moves further and further from Senegal. The tearful man seems to contract; he clings to his prized hen as though it were Senegal itself. In contrast, Abou seems to expand, his boyishness disappearing into the firm set of his shoulders, signaling his passage to manhood. In each of the characters’ countenances, as they sit pressed together in the small pirogue, epics unfold, eloquent expressions of displacement—and, for Abou and Baye Laye, a realization of responsibility and belonging.