The Pirogue tells the story of a group of West African villagers who risk life and limb to cross the high seas between Senegal and Spain in search of better economic prospects. The decision stems from necessity more than desire; as one character puts it, everyone has already left anyway, “even the fish.” In the run-up to the voyage, Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye), the captain of a small fishing boat, weighs whether the approximately 1500 Euro purse he is offered to lead the expedition warrants the trouble. His wife is less than optimistic about the journey, and suggests to her incredulous husband that a trip to China might be more remunerative because “Europe is having a crisis.”
Baye ultimately agrees to helm the eponymous pirogue—basically a gigantic, uncovered dinghy—into which 30 men, a stowaway woman, and a chicken are crammed with minimal supplies. Pummeled by the sun and sea, the passengers begin to suffocate—psychologically and literally—as ethnic and religious tensions exacerbated by mutual incomprehension (they don’t all speak or understand the same languages) threaten to scuttle what is already a very precarious endeavor. When a terrified Guinean passenger who doesn’t speak French begins weeping and screaming uncontrollably, the others, fearing chaos, bind and gag him, thus commencing the slow creep of slavery’s iconography into the film. Frightened and desperate to reach Europe, the men find that basic human decency quickly gets tossed overboard.
What The Pirogue lacks in suspense it makes up for with its visceral depiction of migrants risking everything for their families. Director Moussa Touré studs the generally predictable story with surprisingly beautiful images, mostly of the men’s faces as they cope with the miserable state of things aboard the pirogue. Sometimes stricken, sometimes jubilant, their vivid expressions successfully take the place of substantive dialogue. Action-packed sequences enhanced by special effects give the film juice. Coupling a pleasant soundtrack (prominently featuring the kora, a West African string instrument) with accomplished visuals, The Pirogue overachieves to deliver an unexpectedly touching and informative portrait of contemporary West Africa, which, like the ill-equipped boat its characters board, is buffeted by forces greater than it can withstand.
Shot with a digital camera—and given extensive postproduction treatment, especially in the realm of special effects—The Pirogue’s high production values contribute to its appeal. Touré claims inspiration for the film’s visual style from Peter Weir’s Master and Commander, which he showed to the entire cast before shooting. The resultant aesthetic—shiny but grave, Afropop topical—is alluring.