Like a Pebble in the Boot (Comme un caillou dans la botte)
(Canada, 70 min.)
Dir. Hélène Choquette
While street vending is illegal in Italy, it is the only source of income for many Senegalese migrant workers. Deceived by the Western image of prosperity, they reach the Mediterranean coast in hope of finding promising jobs. Instead, many Senegalese men end up sacrificing their health and often their dignity by illegally selling cheap merchandize to scrape sufficient funds together to survive.
As desolate as this premise might sound, Hélène Choquette (Refugees of the Blue Planet, Chienne de Vie) turns it into a thrilling spectacle. Her new documentary, Like a Pebble in the Boot, follows several Senegalese migrants on their laborious journey through the callous streets of Florence.
The documentary starts off by disguising itself as a tourism video. Choquette guides us though the architectural masterpieces of Florence capturing the beauty of Italian renaissance. Subsequently, the filmmaker juxtaposes the opulence of Italian grandeur with the reality of its African street vendors.
Choquette interviews several Senegalese men, ranging from newcomers to settled immigrants, to find out about their hardships and mindsets. Most migrant workers confess that they couldn’t foresee the challenges they’d face in Italy. Due to lack of employment opportunities, most sell cheap jewelry and selfie sticks, making anything between twelve to twenty dollars per day. Since the nature of their jobs is illegal, they have to play “cat and mouse” games with the local police.
Many Senegalese street vendors are repeatedly subjected to violence, prejudice and racism. Europeans often consider African street merchants to be doing work that is detrimental to their society, which echoes in their everyday interactions with them. The interviewees admit that doing street vending in Italy made them feel disheartened, degraded and distrustful of the Europeans. Some even vocalize their regret in coming to Europe.
The filmmaker travels to Senegal to show the other side of the spectrum. She speaks with the migrants’ families to understand the mentality behind mass movement away from Africa. Even though many families are aware of the poor job quality in Europe, they still prefer their sons to leave. The migrants’ families heavily rely on the money coming from abroad. Unable to get the proper governmental papers or to pay for their flight, some Senegalese men travel to the Mediterranean in makeshift boats, which often leads to casualties. Discouraged and exhausted, many wish to go back to Senegal but cannot due to economical circumstances.
Stylistically, Like a Pebble in the Boot is reminiscent of a TV documentary in its production value. Featuring conventional documentary voiceover and interviews, it’s informative, visually pleasing and quite entertaining. The film’s cinematography is note-worthy. Choquette captivates the audiences with vivacious tracking shots of its leads running from the authorities, which are accompanied by rhythmic tunes. The filmmaker visually intersects Italian and Senegalese cultural realms by offering panoramic views of their capitals. The documentary also features insightful and memorable shots of the street vendors selling goods on the bustling streets of Florence and Dakar.
Choquette reveals the delusion on both sides of the spectrum. People in Senegal have a misleading perception of the West, while Europeans often express xenophobic attitudes towards the migrants. While the root of both delusions is planted in the West, it’s the African street vendors who pay the price for these misconceptions.
The documentary succeeds in exposing the hardships of Senegalese migrant workers with compassion and empathy. Although beautifully observed, Choquette’s treatment of the problematic relationship between Europe and Senegal remains dubious and unrequited. We witness the unfair distribution of the world’s money, but the filmmaker keeps a safe distance from confronting the current political and economic systems, the repercussions of which are highly decipherable in her film.
From one point of view, Choquette’s approach dedicates more screen time to her subjects, insuring their humanizing and fair representations. On the other hand, it limits the film’s potential and abridges a critical dialogue around worldwide inequality. The filmmaker makes a statement against Europe’s xenophobia and intolerance but keeps her discussion one-dimensional, which creates a vacuum around her work.
Like a Pebble in the Boot offers an aesthetic and culturally agile insight into the world of Senegalese migrant workers in Florence. Dynamic and entrancing, Choquette’s portrait of the world’s inequality seems rootless and leaves the viewers with many questions. On the bright side, although the film isn’t directly confrontational and is slightly detached, it makes the audience question the status quo and may ignite a much-needed curiosity around what is happening in Africa.
VIFF runs Sept. 28-Oct. 13.
Visit VIFF.org for more information on this year’s festival.