Tag Archive: La pirogue


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].

Decisions, decisions

It’s that time of year again. The air turns crisp, the ground is covered with pink and white cammellia petals, and it’s time to book tickets for 20 films at Sydney Film Festival with my staff Flexipass.

I’ve been the program editor at SFF for three years now. It so happens I’m one of the first to hear about the film program during the gruelling weeks of putting together the print guide. One interesting film after another appears on my radar while I’m hard at it, and I barely have time to think, much less plan what to see. Then my deadlines pass, work slows down, and there’s that delicious moment when I sit down with the guide – my handiwork – and, armed with an orange highlighter, start choosing the films I’ll be checking out in June.

OK, so I work for SFF, but this is not some kind of obnoxious insider’s rant. I’m lucky enough to have an insider’s perspective, but I’m a punter when it comes to seeing and writing about the films – most of which have only screened at overseas festivals I can’t afford to attend.

So these are the 20 films I’ve settled on, in the order I plan to see them. They are largely, but not necessarily, what I’m guessing will be the 20 best at the fest. I have to make hard choices, and some films get tragically left out because they clash with my schedule. I might hedge a bet because I know a certain film will get released or someone will get me a copy; I might be avoiding overdoing it in a certain section or genre (especially Freak Me Out, always a temptation); or it could be down to supporting Australian films over others. Screenings at the State Theatre definitely have priority. It’s a game in itself, and the end result is always a strange cat’s cradle of marked-up sessions.

The vagaries of the festival calendar mean that on some days I’ve only booked one film, while on others I have up to four to watch back to back – an ambitious but foolhardy feat which only results in delirium and confusion even in the geekiest hardcore cinephiles. But somehow things always work out – I end up skipping a screening here, hustling tickets for another there, something unexpected becomes my new favorite movie ever, and the festival always turns out to be a blast…

Always a blast

My Flexipass 20:

  1. La pirogue (Thursday, 7 June, 2:20pm, Event Cinemas) – The first full day of the festival begins for me with a film from Senegal that’s set to screen at Cannes next week and will almost certainly not get a commercial run here. To me that’s where it’s at. Not to make some hokey statement about the superiority of “real-life stories” – for starters I don’t even believe that; I like my stories to be a lot weirder than real life. But if I have to choose, I’ll take a film about African boat refugees starring unknown or nonprofessional actors over a lot of other more ballyhooed festival fare.
  2. Caesar Must Die  (Thursday 7 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, in competition here, this mix of documentary and drama is set in a Roman prison, where the inmates are staging a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Golden Bear winners have been some of my faves of recent years, and the premise just sounds cool.
  3. Killer Joe  (Thursday 7 June, 9pm, Event Cinemas) – From ace guest programmer Richard Kuipers’ Freak Me Out section, this looks to be the kind of sleazy and violent but intelligent (and even subversive) thriller I would have eaten up as a kid late at night on Cinemax. Directed by William Friedkin (!!), featuring a rumored great performance from Matthew McConaughey, this sounds like an excellent chaser for Caesar Must Die.
  4. Beasts of the Southern Wild and
  5. Moonrise Kingdom (Friday 8 June, 6:30pm and 8:30pm, State Theatre) – This is the evening at the festival I’m looking forward to most: a double dose of magical Americana screening at the truly awesome State; one from a new director (Benh Zeitlin) riding a wave of acclaim at Sundance, the other from freaking Wes Anderson. Both feature child protagonists and and culminate in third-act storms; one stars Bruce Willis and the other does not (but, hey). These were my top choices from the get, and they’re screening back to back; I can’t imagine a better double feature.
  6. Lore (Saturday 9 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – An Australian competition film is almost a must-see; but Cate Shortland’s latest has a decidedly un-Aussie setting and I have to admit I’m more curious than usual: it’s a drama about German refugee children and the Jewish kid who helps them at the end of World War II.
  7. Tabu (Sunday 10 June, 7:15pm, State Theatre) – This black-and-white competition title from Portugal is a mix of drama and adventure split into two narratives, one of which is set in colonial Africa. The wife loved it and said I should not miss it, so there we are.
  8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Monday 11 June, 4:15pm, State Theatre) – I’m a sucker for Turkish cinema, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s meditation on crime and punishment is one of the most talked-about Turk titles in years; cannot miss a screening of it at the State.
  9. The Warped Forest (Monday 11 June, 9 pm, Event Cinemas) – Another entry from Freak Me Out, this fantasy/horror piece is apparently one of the weirdest movies of recent years – and solely given the fact that it’s from Japan, I don’t see how there can be a ceiling on that claim. I picture something like a live version of Miyazaki, with elements of early Cronenberg. (Actually, it’s also a leading contender for “Film I’m Most Likely to Skip Because I Decided It Would Be Too Weird.”)
  10. The King of Pigs (Tuesday 12 June, 6:15pm, State Theatre) – This violent animated Korean thriller about class conflict in high school is actually screening in competition; it therefore has a cool dark-horse status (of course it’s not going to win! animation’s for kids!) that automatically makes me want to support it over other films.
  11. Postcards from the Zoo (Wednesday 13 June, 8:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – Indonesian weirdness from “maverick” one-named director Edwin, about a girl raised in a zoo who falls in love with a magical cowboy. What’s not to like here?
  12. Dead Europe (Thursday 14 June, 6:30pm, Event Cinemas) – Must-see Aussie competition title part 2; this one from director Tony Krawitz, about a guy from Sydney who digs into his family’s past in Greece only to discover ghosts and curses. Sounds all right to me. From a novel by Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap. Screening back-to-back with The Loneliest Planet (below), forming a promising double feature about travel and alienation.
  13. The Loneliest Planet (Thursday 14 June, 8:45pm, State Theatre) – Gael García Bernal stars in a story about a romantic hiking trip in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia that goes all wrong. Gael always chooses good screenplays, and this one dovetails with my cinematic fascination with the Near East and Asia Minor.
  14. Barbara (Friday 15 June, 2pm, Event Cinemas) – For a number of reasons, when it comes to choosing films I find myself drawn to almost any other region before Europe. But I figured I should get at least a couple of Euro titles in, and this one, a drama from director Christian Petzold about an East German woman doctor exiled to a country backwater in 1980, seems pretty promising for reasons I can’t articulate. It might be the haunting melancholy of the vintage Cold War setting; or it might be the promo stills of the rather cute Nina Hoss riding a bike.
  15. Death for Sale (Friday 15 June, 4:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This Moroccan neo-noir thriller about a band of small-time crooks has been praised to heaven since it premiered at Toronto last year. For some stupid reason I missed it at Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where I also work and where part of its funding came from. Maybe it was meant to be, because now it’s the first in my planned triple feature about violence and honor on the festival’s last Friday.
  16. Retaliation (Friday 15 June, 6:30pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This 1968 yakuza “bullet ballet,” part of the retrospective of exploitation flicks from Japan’s Nikkatsu studio (celebrating its 100th anniversary) was one of my top picks anyway, but coming right after Death for Sale makes it even more obvious.
  17. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Friday 15 June, 9pm, Dendy Opera Quays) – This one from Takashi Miike will conclude a possibly exhausting triple feature with lots of eviscerations in 3D. This was a tough choice, because I have no interest in seeing it in 3D – but I didn’t want to miss another epic samurai flick from Miike, whose 13 Assassins was one of the highlights of the last festival. (And as it happens, the one 3D title I saw last year, Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, was also one of the best, so here’s hoping those two trends work together.)
  18. Neighbouring Sounds (Saturday 16 June, 11:45am) – This competition film from Brazil just seems to be all about the stuff I’m into lately: naturalism, meditations on architecture and urban decay, Brazilian chicks getting high, abstract sound design, waterfalls of blood, etc. Anyway I love watching the more out-there competition films in the morning.
  19. The Angels’ Share (Saturday 16 June, 8:40pm, State Theatre) – Ken Loach, booze, dudes in kilts.
  20. Wuthering Heights (Sunday 17 June, 2:30pm, Event Cinemas) – Emily Arnold’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic has gotten very mixed reviews but it sounds like strong stuff either way. Turns out I haven’t read the book, so that’s not a factor (the way it would be with, say, Jane Austen). But I like what I hear about the bleak, primal, postmodern depiction of 19th-century Yorkshire.

Animation’s for kids

Most painful exclusions (must see about taxing the wife’s Flexipass): Safety Not Guaranteed (not by choice – turns out I’m busy on Closing Night), Marley (I’m a itinual fan, of course, but I imagine I’ll have a chance to see it again), Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (easily the best title in the festival), The Parade (might be missing a goldmine of dry Balkan humor), Dreams of a Life (doco about a woman whose corpse was found in her London apartment three years after she died)Modest Reception (Iranian situationism run amok), Livid (more Freak Me Out awesomeness), Searching for Sugar Man (Sundance audience award-winning doco about “lost” ’70s soul singer Rodriguez), Undefeated (Oscar-winning football doco), OK, Good (indie psychological thriller in Freak Me Out), A Simple Life (universally acclaimed Hong Kong drama about a retired housemaid).

Titles I’ve already seen and love, like or at least recommend: Rampart, Polisse, Policeman, Headshot, Today, Monsieur Lazhar, Goodbye, Alps, Where Do We Go Now?

Stray cat rock?