Two of the films that I was most keen on going into this year’s Sydney Film Festival hail from Senegal. New Festival Director Nashen Moodley is known for his knowledge of African cinema; he’s from Durban himself, and has been working with Africa programs at the Durban and Dubai film festivals for the past decade – a decade in which more and more African filmmakers have started to make names for themselves.

Nashen downplays the Africa thing, saying he’s just as passionate about films from Australia or Greece. Fair enough; but it’s hard to escape the fact that the guy knows his African stuff, and I was looking forward to seeing what he brought to SFF. I’m getting more and more tired of the focus on Western and Central Europe that is more or less automatic in festival-land (not that I was ever that Eurocentric in the first place) but now there’s so much amazing film coming from every region of the world – East Asia, the Middle East, everywhere – and to me that’s where it’s at right now. I feel like I have even less time for [insert name of multiple award-winning European auteur here].

In an Official Competition filled with distinctive films (from a six-hour Indian crime story to a South Korean animated psychodrama about school bullying), Today stands out in my mind for its narrative minimalism and its spiritual qualities. Directed by Senegalese Frenchman Alain Gomis, this magical-realist story is about a man named Satché, played by slam poet Saül Williams, who wakes up one day somehow knowing this day will be his last. We never find out how or why; Satché’s impending demise is taken for granted by him and his loved ones from the very first shot. The film is simply concerned with how he chooses to spend his day. In that sense the day becomes a metaphor for his entire life – and for all of life. As he wanders around the Senegalese capital of Dakar saying goodbye to friends and acquaintances, he passes through fear and anger and regret, but also acceptance and even joy. It sounds a bit high-concept to read about it; what makes the film work is Gomis’ crisp screenplay and deft, restrained directorial touch. Even in moments of celebration or heated anger, there’s an ephemeral, ghostly quality to each of Satché’s encounters – his baleful stare, his long silences, the way the city keeps moving around him as he stands lost in thought, as if he must be wondering whether he’s already dead and merely haunting the place.

In the terrific opening scene, Satché’s wife and family gather with him in a kind of ritual to vocally celebrate his life, to mourn its end – and also to criticize his faults. Satché silently takes it all in, the good and the bad, reflecting on a life that has run its course. I found myself painfully relating to his shortcomings as vehemently pointed out by his wife – his indecisiveness, his inability to get things done. I’m not sure if it means I have something in common with the character, or whether the screenplay functions as a mirror.

Williams’ understated but magnetic performance carries the film – he’s onscreen almost constantly. I did wonder why an American got cast in the lead – but the story vaguely alludes to Satché’s having lived in the States, and it adds an interesting sense of detachment. As it happens, director Gomis is an outsider himself, having been raised in Europe, so maybe it fits. (I have no idea if Williams’ lines in Wolof are delivered with the right accent or not.)

The depiction of Dakar is gorgeous, with all its rhythm, variety and color set against gleaming tower blocks and corporate offices that communicate the same postmodern alienation as anywhere else. The cinematography is beautiful, finding just the right balance between the rich hues of sunny African city streets, and a darker, more desaturated palette that speaks to the morbid nature of the story. (Amazingly, the film was shot on a Canon 1D.) Here I risk sounding like a cine-tourist, but such a varied and balanced view of life in urban Africa is one of the valuable things about the film. It reminds you that Western Africa is not all poverty and desperation – it’s just another part of the world with its own problems and its own way of doing things.

Today is really elevated by its largely dialogue-free and absolutely spellbinding third act. After his ramblings, Satché arrives back home; his wife cooks him a meal (including some delicious-looking fried balls of cornmeal that look like what we Americans would call hushpuppies) and he plays with his kids. The film becomes a kind of visual poem about hearth and home and food and contentment, which is constrasted with such an aching melancholy, such a bewildering awareness of death, that watching it I almost felt a sense of personal loss. But the sequence also communicates peace, a stillness that is about being present in the moment. It’s remarkably meditative. It seems like a cliché but this is a film that makes you value life.

And that’s where I find Today significant. The flavor du jour in European arthouse fare is nihilism. It’s all too easy to imagine how grim or hopeless this film would be if it were, say, Scandanavian – and how much more seriously it might be taken. (Want to debate about it? Let’s start with Joachim von Trier’s superb Oslo August 31st, one of last year’s best films, which by the way very much resembles Today in narrative structure. Is it bleak and miserable, or actually life-affirming? Months later I’m still deciding.) I don’t know if there’s something in Senegalese culture that allows for a more holistic and accepting view of death, or if Gomis himself has a singular talent for sharing spiritual insight on film. For now, it doesn’t matter; either way it’s resulted in a lovely film, one of the best of the year so far.

La pirogue takes a more standard approach, but it has the benefit of being set largely at sea. I’ll watch just about any movie about boats. Moussa Touré’s film is about the Senegalese refugees who brave the Atlantic every year in simple fishing boats (the pirogues of the title) in order to make it to Europe. As the film informs us, many of them die along the way due to storms or shipwrecks. This would resonate with Sydney audiences: every Australian knows full well the real-life significance of such asylum seekers and their impact on society. This film sets out to give them individual stories.

La pirogue‘s narrative is lean and spare: it is simply about a group of people who have a destination. Their journey turns into a struggle for survival. That’s it. There are few subplots, few efforts to make the story about something larger than it already is, which is life and death and the yearning for a better life.

Material like this needs to be played straight; the downside to that is that it might come across like a made-for-TV film. Whether or not it will be good cinema, in addition to communicating a good message, is all about the execution. La pirogue comes close to hitting the mark. It’s well-crafted, with very good production values – even its share of special effects. You could hardly call it low-budget, at least in terms of developing-world fare. Touré’s confident, unpretentious direction suits the story perfectly. The opening scenes of exposition on dry land are nicely handled and create strong dramatic interest, as a reluctant fisherman (played by Moctar Diop) is convinced to captain the fateful voyage, and a group of desperate inland refugees who don’t even speak his language are placed under his care.

Once at sea, it seems we’re in for a corker of a tale. Back to the boat thing: Touré says he was influenced by Master and Commander, one of my favorite mainstream films. You can see it here, not only in obvious moments (such as the deadly storm), but in the way he seems to have borrowed some of Peter Weir’s tricks in very effectively dealing with the cinematic problems of filming a feature-length drama with a number of characters on a crowded vessel. Despite the limited scope of the action we never lose interest; and there are some truly affecting, even heartrending moments of doubt, conflict and suffering. In such a confined space there’s a good deal of intimacy, both between the characters and for the viewer – and this, of course, allows Touré to humanize the lives of boat refugees without being preachy at all.

Unfortunately the story flattens out a bit during the third act. The screenplay seems to take shortcuts; just when we would like to get to know the characters just a little better, get a little bit deeper, the narrative is speeding along to its resolution (which is at least admirably free of sentiment) in typical docudrama fashion. It’s not as clumsy as it might have been in lesser hands, but it’s not quite there either. The acting is fine overall, but falters during some crucial moments. This film will indeed play very well on TV – or better yet, in educational contexts; honestly, every resident of the developed world should be made to watch it) though it left me wanting more.

But in the end, you know what? There are times when I’d rather watch an honest and heartfelt film like this one, with all its shortcomings, than something by [insert name of European auteur here].