A Nigerien peasant comes looking for work in Essakane, a dusty gold mine in Northeast Burkina Faso, where he hopes to forget the past that haunts him.A Nigerien peasant comes looking for work in Essakane, a dusty gold mine in Northeast Burkina Faso, where he hopes to forget the past that haunts him.A Nigerien peasant comes looking for work in Essakane, a dusty gold mine in Northeast Burkina Faso, where he hopes to forget the past that haunts him.
The opening shot is of 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 musicalonly there is no music, only silence broken by 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. 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 to 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.
- Jan 18, 2009