Depicting an African hell on Earth where ant-like men burrow deep into the desert and risk their lives to mine gold, “Dreams of Dust” relies on hypnotic widescreen photography to bind viewers to its grim drama. Unfortunately the slow, static rhythm sorely tries audience involvement in the story, which is well written and directed by French helmer Laurent Salgues on his first feature outing. This is the kind of film that is more admired than loved, and more likely to pick up festival prizes than foreign sales.
In its unexpected horror and absurdity, premise recalls strongly Michael Glawogger’s grim doc “Workingman’s Death.” In the Burkina Faso desert, desperate men and women live in a rudimentary gold rush camp. Working in small teams overseen by a merciless boss, they shimmy down narrow tunnels reaching a hundred feet and more into the sand with flashlights tied to their heads and a pick in their hands.
When a gold nugget is found, the whole team becomes rich. When a tunnel collapses, everyone dies. The asphyxiating sand makes rescue impossible.
Mocktar (Makena Diop), a Nigerian farmer, arrives in the camp after facing a personal tragedy. His stoicism in adapting to the sand miners’ hellish profession is echoed in the beautiful Coumba’s (Fatou Tall-Salgues) courage in raising her young daughter after the death of her family. Together they struggle for survival in a world in which all human values seem to have been destroyed by greed.
Salgues’ screenplay is perfectly crafted in the Western tradition, while Crystel Fournier’s striking cinematography connects the film to a broad African vision. Viewers have a lot of time to admire her dazzling desert panoramas, as there is almost no narrative motor to underwrite the visuals.
Diop brings towering dignity to his Nigerian immigrant. A man of few words, he ably plays off the experienced wit of Rasmane Ouedraogo as his veteran teammate. Tall-Salgues makes a strong-backed heroine of mythic beauty.
Mathieu Vanasse and Jean Massicotte’s music track matches the rest of the film in being extremely refined. The French and Canadian post-prod work is top quality. Improbably, all dialogue is in very formal French.