Toronto International Film Festival 2013—Part 5
A filmmaker sees and does something important
2 October 2013
Sometimes a film surprises you.
Franco-Senegalese director Dyana Gaye’s Under the Starry Sky takes place in three cities simultaneously, over the course of one winter.
Twenty-two-year-old Sophie arrives in Turin in the north of Italy. She’s come from Senegal in West Africa, looking for her husband, Abdoulaye. He, however, after living with another woman in Turin for some time, has made his way illegally to New York City, where he looks to survive in bleak conditions. Abdoulaye’s one contact in America, Sophie’s aunt, is meanwhile on her way to Africa—after emigrating decades before—with her son, Thierno, who is visiting the continent for the first time.
Under the Starry Sky
The film takes place in the course of these characters following and displacing one another, and attempting to find a new life in the process. Gaye says her film is “for me the opportunity to pay tribute to what we all are: people in transition.”
Sophie confronts a painful situation in Turin. She first finds herself in the household of the woman who lived with her husband, not knowing anyone else in the city, not knowing the language, without papers. When she takes a room in the residence of an Italian woman who works with immigrants, and already has a Ukrainian tenant, she begins to make sense of a new country.
In cold, relatively friendless New York, Abdoulaye finds out at work that his cousin and traveling partner has been cheating him, taking a share of his pay. “My own cousin rips me off.” “I get a share because I arranged the trip.” Abdoulaye walks off angrily into the city streets.
In Senegal, Thierno gets a taste of African life. His mother has returned for the funeral of her former husband, who has a second wife and family in Dakar. Thierno is fascinated, a little overwhelmed perhaps by the new sights and sounds and smells. One of his female cousins is obsessed with America; getting there is all she can think about.
The director says the characters, like many of their fellow countrymen and countrywomen in Senegal, are “torn between Africa and the West, past and future, dream and reality, one’s ancestral culture and the longing for personal freedom.” She explains that her purpose it not to draw up a balance-sheet of the pros and cons of immigration, but to draw closer “to destinies often reduced to nothing more than footnotes and statistics.”
There are interesting and truthful sequences in Under the Starry Sky. But one moment, which comes as something of a surprise, makes it rise above many other films on the same subject.
After breaking with his cousin, Abdoulaye is forced to spend his first night on New York’s streets. A white man sits down next to him on the frozen sidewalk. Eventually, he explains, “I’m from Louisiana. I lost everything, including my wife, in Hurricane Katrina.” He was in the construction business, now he’s homeless. “Do you have a wife?,” the southerner asks Abdoulaye. “Yes,” the latter replies, which is perhaps only half true.
The brief scene is deeply affecting. All of a sudden, the film rises above parochial and narrow concerns. It becomes about the fate of the dispossessed everywhere. The filmmaker has seen something about the world that must reflect a wider recognition building up: the reality of the global economy, on the one hand, with its leveling tendencies, and the worthlessness of a national or insular outlook, on the other.
Later, Sophie’s life takes an intriguing turn. Having found work and learned a little Italian, she gets to know Vadim, the attractive Ukrainian roommate, a bit more. He explains he is not going back to his native country; the situation there “is hard.” He then invites her to go away on a short trip with him. A married woman, or one who still considers herself to be married, she’s a little insulted at first. In the last scene, however, Sophie and Vadim are on the train together, on their way to Genoa.
In a small way, it’s a very hopeful moment: people face great difficulties because of the present social and economic set-up, but they are astonishingly adaptable and creative, and endlessly capable of caring for one another.