Perilous journeys home and away: Each edition of the African Diaspora International Film Festival, presented annually by Facets Cinematheque, offers a continent's worth in both directions.
As with last year's, this year's lineup (running through Thursday) has Alliance Francaise de Chicago joining Facets in its efforts to expand the worldview of Chicago filmgoers. Among its 14 titles, the 2013 festival features an exceptional and vividly realized high-seas drama screened in last year's Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard competition. It's called "The Pirogue" (¿¿¿1/2), and it's nearly impossible to resist.
Senegalese director Moussa Toure begins as if inside a documentary, immersing the audience in a raucous street festival combining dance and wrestling matches. Gradually, tense sidelong glances between certain men in the crowd suggest a narrative unfolding. We meet Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye), who manages one of the wrestlers. A fisherman by trade, he has a wife and children and precious little money.
Along with his musician brother, Baye Laye joins 28 others (including a female stowaway) on a seven-day journey in a small boat, the pirogue of the title. The intended route is from Africa to Spain; Europe holds the promise of a better life for these disparate characters of various ethnic, religious and temperamental backgrounds.
With a minimum of digital effects work, though the storm sequences are impressively faked, "The Pirogue" creates a microcosm of a teeming society, or, rather, societies required to accommodate each other. The emigrants have only 80 gallons of water and 330 pounds of rice among them. Early in the voyage, the boat encounters another small craft, adrift, carrying desperate survivors they must either assist, at great risk to their own rations and lives, or ignore and push on. What to do?
One of the shrewdest performances comes from Laity Fall as the vaguely sinister organizer of the trip, whose insistent chuckle carries no warmth, only a vague threat of trouble to come. The details stick in the mind because director Toure is so deft at placing them in the service of the narrative. The night before he leaves, Baye Laye and his wife make love, their hands tracing each other's bodies as if trying to physically memorize each other's skin. Toure's ensemble triumph flows freely, allowing everyone on screen his or her piece of humanity in an inhuman scenario.
The road-tripping "Legends of Madagascar" (¿¿1/2) is about a journey home, not away. It's also a spirited fable of what a sociology degree might do in the hands of the right young Malagasy students.
The movie was a labor of love for director Haminiaina Ratovoarivony, who also goes by Hamy Ratovo (and who now lives in Chicago). He's a strong on-screen presence: In "Legends of Madagascar," Ratovo plays the most dangerous and volatile of the three young Malagasy citizens packed into a beat-up Mini Cooper heading toward the village of Jimi (Ben Elissar), whose father is dying. Along the way, these two and campus radio DJ and Rasta-man Bob (Mahon Andoniaina) pick up an Indo-Pakistani teenager (Sanjy Valeska).
Ratovo's picture starts out wonderfully, with Bob's on-air radio spiel ("Remember, pizzas are for the middle class. Proletarians stick with rice forever!"). Along the way, the Malagasy vs. Indian tensions in the island nation, political violence and sexual jealousy all compete for the story's time and attention. There's some crude rear projection in some scenes, and Ratovo's feature debut has all sorts of drawbacks. But there's life and spirit in it. At one point a character refers to a local flower known as "life-sweetener." No matter how harsh the circumstances in any of these African Diaspora selections, there is sweetness to be found.
For the full African Diaspora International Film Festival schedule, go to facets.org.
"The Pirogue" plays at 6:30 p.m. Sunday and 6 p.m. Wednesday; in French, Wolof and Al Pelaar with English subtitles. Running time: 1:27.
"Legends of Madagascar" plays at 4 p.m. Sunday and 8:30 p.m. Tuesday (with director and actor Hamy Ratovo in attendance); in Malagasy with English subtitles. Running time: 1:33.