For helmer Moussa Toure, journeys are more interesting than destinations. His sophomore pic, “TGV,” was set on a long bus ride, and his third feature, “The Pirogue,” largely takes place within a crowded boat (the title refers to a flat-bottomed vessel common in Western Africa). Unsurprisingly, the men and one woman facing the dangerous sea voyage from Senegal to Spain risk far more than most coach passengers, and Toure crafts a handsome work that makes up in skill and honesty what it lacks in originality. Smooth sailing can be predicted at fests and in Francophone territories.
News channels in Europe broadcast stories at least once a week about ill-fated crossings between Africa and “the Old World.” Thousands die yearly of drowning, exposure and starvation, yet the sheer scale of the crisis means that most reports feature depersonalized images and numbing numbers. “The Pirogue” counters cold statistics with a range of flesh-and-blood characters whose desire for the brass ring of life in the West leads them to take risks that few, apart from the absolutely desperate, are willing to try.
At home in Senegal, the seas have been overfished, opportunities are nonexistent, and the only money coming in is from compatriots who made it abroad. Fisherman Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) knows the dangers involved, but agrees to captain a pirogue full of men so he can earn some decent cash for his family. The trip is organized by Lansana (Laity Fall), a fast-talking shyster with nothing but money on his mind. Thirty-one people, including stowaway Nafy (Mame Astou Diallo), the lone female, are packed into the bottom of the boat for the seven-day crossing to Spain.
On board are an assortment of people from Senegal and Guinea who start off with hope in their eyes and concord in their hearts. As hardships mount, differences in language and religious conviction take their toll, exacerbated by the claustrophobic quarters. When a massive storm destroys the engine and food supplies, the journey turns into a nightmare.
Despite a high predictability level, “The Pirogue” succeeds on the strengths of its nicely delineated characters and first-rate production values. Even if some roles are only cursorily sketched (there are a lot of guys in this boat), they convey personality and a hunger for opportunity that’s hard to keep at an emotional distance. The topnotch widescreen lensing gives prominence to faces; the term “illegal immigrant” has taken on such negative connotations, with a consequent denial of specificity, that it’s salutary to gaze at the human face of the problem.
Toure claims to have been influenced by “Master and Commander,” especially evident in an impressive if overdone storm sequence that flings the small boat around and terrorizes the passengers, most of whom can’t swim. An affecting closing shot provides some immediate comfort without lessening the tragedy at the pic’s heart.