The opening sequence of films often indicates the quality of cinema that follows. Writers and journalists are aware that they need to grab the attention of the reader at the outset, not later, if they have to win longer-term attention. In Laurent Salgues’ debut feature film Dreams of dust, the opening sequence will remain an amazing one—one that sets the tone for what would eventually follow.
The opening sequence here captures the rural, dusty, semi-arid Burkina Faso, a West African country on the fringes of the massive Saharan desert, an area known to many as the Sahel. The viewer doesn’t see anyone for a while. Not even animals seem to inhabit the horizon. In the foreground, the viewer sees mounds of dust, like anthills. Suddenly you see, dust-covered humans emerge from holes in the ground, like rats emerging from their holes. These are prospectors digging in archaic mine-shafts (now apparently banned in Burkina Faso) for gold in a god-forsaken part of Africa. That opening shot reminds you of a choreographed musical—only there is no music, only silence and the sounds of workers’ tools. The workers are emerging after toiling underground for several hours constantly at the risk of being buried alive with no one to rescue them if the mine ever caves in. They would leave behind widows and fatherless children, if that were ever to happen.
Dreams of dust is an important film on Africa. First, it exhibits the vigor and competence of a talented French director making a debut feature film armed with his very own script that evolved from an initial idea of a documentary on the lives of these gold miners hunting for gold under unusual circumstances. Second, it is a film made by a European on a real sub-Saharan African subject in a real location. The film is able to raise the cinematic content to a level above mere actions and words (say, compared to the recent award-winning Chadean film Daratt or Dry Season) as it gradually transforms into a metaphysical cinematic essay on the continent’s people, their dreams, their despair, and their infrequent quests for a deeper meaning of their trials and tribulations and an eventual resolution of personal loss in this transient life. Third, it is a film that does not end with the typical hero and heroine riding out into the setting sun, but instead offers an end that would evoke feelings in the viewer’s mind that are similar to those while viewing the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, although the visuals in the two films couldn’t be more starkly dissimilar. Fourth, it underscores the dignity and integrity of the sensitive and pensive African, rarely captured on film or in literature that transcends physical strength. Finally, it attempts to poetically bring on screen the King Arthur like quest of a Holy Grail at the end of the film leaving an open end for the viewer and filmmaker alike, alluding to the literal meaning of the word “Sahel,” which in Arabic means “the shore” as the hero symbolically, as in a mirage, walks into the desert.
The film is a story of a male Nigerien (from Niger, not Nigeria) gold prospector seeking to make a fortune in gold in the neighboring country Burkina Faso. He is an intriguing individual, tall, strong, and an honest worker. He is also a “man with a past”. The film does not reveal much about him; only that he was once a farmer, was married and had a daughter. He is evidently a person with heroic qualities that separate him from his co-workers. He does get attracted to a local attractive woman and her girl child, who naturally remind him of his own family. While several strands of the film are incredibly close to stories that made Westerns and Hollywood films so successful at the box office, Salgues deals with the subject in a way Hollywood would never attempt to shape, by injecting dignity and detachment in the principal character to the world around him.
Initially the viewer would think the film is Blood Diamond revisited in a different and less hospitable environment. Towards the final half hour of the film, the story evolves from a mere “sweat-and-blood” tale of an expatriate into a metaphysical, psychological tale of a man seeking redemption from some sad events in his past. The film makes the viewer to ponder over the common dream of the African immigrant to acquire wealth. Here the African immigrant is not in USA or in Europe but in a neighboring Sahelian country. Here is a fascinating tale of a farmer with money in his pocket opting to become a voluntary slave in a tough environment, quite confident that he will eventually get to his pot of gold. The gold mine could suggest a metaphoric transit point in a long personal journey in the life of a thinking individual, if not the average African immigrant.
There are social pointers in the film that a viewer is not likely to miss. The fatherless girl plays with a doll but interestingly the face of the doll is blackened. The tyrannical boss of the mine is eventually replaced by a hardworking miner who is more understanding of the plight of the workers—perhaps suggesting the waves of change taking place on the continent. However, the title of the film reiterates the intent of the director/writer Salgues. Would the dreams of the African really lead to gold or would it lead to dust? The optimistic film shows both taking place, to different individuals, in different ways.
The film presents the nobility and elegance of African men and women, rarely seen on screen. Words spoken in the film are few and yet the few words contribute inversely to the strength of the film. Senegalese actor Makena Diop plays the intriguing Nigerian farmer Moctar who comes to neighboring Burkina Faso to try his hand in prospecting for gold in a mine in Essakane, where such gold mines did exist before Canadian and South African mining companies earned licenses to excavate gold with more efficient scientific methods recently. Filmgoers could note that the beautiful actor Fatou Tall-Salgues who plays Coumba actually married the director Salgues prior to the filming.
I had the advantage of having visited the rural areas of Burkina Faso and Niger (indirectly discussed in the film) as part of my principal vocation, which involves participating in international efforts to improve livelihoods in the Sahel through increased appropriate agricultural production in the water-scarce environment. However, there were odd bits in the film that did not look real—for instance, the mining boss asks for his fees in Euros rather than CFA, the currency of the region.
I saw the film at the recent edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK 08). Director Laurent Salgues and his cinematographer Crystel Fournier were so impressive with this film that a particular shot of a woman seen through a cascade of water elicited spontaneous clapping from the cine-literate audience. At another juncture, the film showed Indian superstar of yesteryear's Meena Kumari dancing in the Bollywood hit Pakeezah making the Kerala audience wonder if the projectionist had mistakenly switched reels of another film. Salgues was merely showing reality—the workers do watch videos of Indian films in Hindi in the Sahel which are more popular than Hollywood blockbusters.
The film is an interesting tale that insinuates that a sequel could follow. If a sequel does appear, it would be interesting to trace the growth of this interesting director who has so efficiently pooled the technical mastery of Canadian and French production teams to fashion a film with top-notch digital quality that will bring pride to cinema on African subjects. The film won attention at Sundance Film Festival. I am not surprised. It is a film that deserves to be widely seen and critically analyzed, just as Portuguese director Teresa Prata’s film on Mozambique, Sleepwalking Land. Both films provide excellent cinematic examples of Europeans empathetically getting inside the African mind.
P.S. Teresa Prata's Sleepwalking Land was reviewed earlier on this blog.