The journey from Senegal and poverty to Europe and supposed prosperity takes seven days by fishing boat. The Pirogue spends only about an hour on open water, but that's enough to convey the risks that make the trip foolish, and the desperation that makes it inevitable.
The movie, the third fiction feature by Senegalese director Moussa Toure, doesn't offer many surprises. What distinguishes it is not the depiction of danger and loss at sea, but a deep understanding of West African culture. Unlike such glib Hollywood issue pictures as Blood Diamond, The Pirogue is rich with authentic details.
That's established by the vivid opening sequence, a wrestling match whose rituals are as complex as those of Japanese sumo. This prologue introduces skilled fisherman Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) and his close friend, Kaba (Babacar Oualy), who also fishes but dreams of soccer stardom. When Baye Laye returns home, he encounters his slacker brother, spiky-haired Abou (Malamine Drame), an aspiring musician who has no interest in the sort of work available in Senegal.
A local "emigration facilitator" offers Baye Laye the helm of a flat-bottomed pirogue, a large-ish but clearly not ocean-worthy craft, that's headed to Spain. At first he declines, preferring to stay with his wife and child. But he reconsiders when he learns that both Kaba and Abou are planning to make the voyage. Baye Laye's sailing skills just might preserve their lives.
Counting the captain and the trip's supervisor, Lansana (Laity Fall), there will be 30 men aboard. Some have never seen the Atlantic before, and many can't swim. They are of two different nationalities and speak three different languages, and while most are Muslim, they practice their faith differently. Adding to the discord is a stowaway who's discovered after the boat begins its passage: Nafy (Mame Astou Diallo) is a woman, which unsettles some of the more superstitious passengers.
What transpires during the rest of the trip, however, can't be attributed to bad luck. It's just a typically hazardous struggle to make a crossing that — an end note estimates — has doomed 5,000 of the 30,000 Africans who've attempted it.
A few characters are sketched in simple but moving strokes. A first-time ocean traveler, terrified, howls and clutches his pet chicken. A man who lost his leg in a boat collision wants nothing more from Europe than a prosthesis.
With 31 souls on the pirogue, Toure can't distinguish them all. But he, like a savvy silent-film director, cast for distinctive faces. In widescreen digital video, the film evocatively contrasts open sea (shot mostly in a broad section of river Toure calls "my 'natural studio' ") with close-ups. "Faces never lie," he says.
Cinematography, often a limitation of African cinema, is not one of The Pirogue's weaknesses. Less surprisingly, neither is the score. Prince Ibrahima Ndour's compositions are soulful, versatile and, of course, rhythmic. Like that wrestling scene, Ndour's music is a pungent reminder of what the emigrants will lose, even if they win their bout with the sea.