By Emma Ward
The River Is Not a Border
Dir. Alassane Diago, Senegal/France/Germany, no distributor
The River Is Not a Border played at Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look festival on March 18.
Despite the emphatic title of Alassane Diago’s documentary, the Senegal River forms much of the border between the West African countries of Senegal and Mauritania. In 1989, the river and surrounding area were the site of racially motivated massacres and deportations to Senegal of Black Mauritanians by the country’s Arab government. Some thirty-odd years later, forty survivors gather on the river’s bank to tell their stories, with Diago’s camera as witness.
The River Is Not a Border retraces the events of 1989 with an attentive but unobtrusive hand. Diago casts his participants not just as subjects but as storytellers, resulting in a film guided more by memory and feeling than historical fact or cinematic flair. The film opens and closes on images of Abdoulaye Diop, a former policeman. Diago gives space to the more intimate details of Diop’s life—his house, his family, the small room where he prays five times a day. The other participants in the film are only depicted at the river gathering, our impressions of them limited to the public recitation of their experiences. Diop functions as a reminder of the less visible daily endurance of these people, living with trauma. He provides the film’s first testimony, sitting outside his home and smoking a cigarette: “89 is difficult, it’s terrible.” He pauses. “It’s indescribable.” A few moments later, Diago—who appears as both an off-camera voice and an on-screen listener—poses a question. “What exactly did you see?”
The River Is Not a Border exists at the intersection of two seemingly opposite approaches to remembrance: depiction of what occurred and recognition of what remains inexpressible. The participants’ harrowing monologues, the camera’s searching close-ups of their faces, and the existence of such a documentary in the first place argue for the necessity of cinematic testimony. Yet, the film’s naturalistic, undemonstrative style and limited scope assert the impossibility of ever depicting and, by extension, understanding, the full extent of such enormous tragedy. Through the visual medium of film, The River Is Not a Border reconciles what can and must be seen with what cannot.
The participants display an acute awareness of what it means to see and be seen, and of sight as fundamentally related to truth and justice. One witness remarks, “This meeting is important to me so that we can […] see each other eye to eye.” Another urges, “Let’s bring victims and criminals face to face, for the truth.” The unobtrusive camera records the events in simple handheld shots that often linger on witnesses for minutes at a time without cutting. (Diago’s seemingly light touch belies the ways in which the film, however necessarily, presents only a partial picture; hours of conversation have been cut down to under two, and some stories have been prioritized over others.) In the eyes of these survivors, seeing is a prerequisite to healing and reparation. By extension, an unwillingness to see signifies an outright rejection of their trauma. Several witnesses discuss the refusal of many Mauritanians to acknowledge the events of 1989. “Some people say they didn’t know, or they didn’t see or hear,” a witness summarizes. The looks of disgust exchanged around the circle attest to the deep-seated hurt such willful blindness has caused.
In its refusal to overtly dramatize the past, the film makes no attempt to visually recreate what happened during the massacres. With the exception of several lines of explanation and dedication bookending the film, no on-screen text labels participants or place. Diago refrains from using archival photos or showing specific landmarks, thus avoiding creating a sense of clinical distance or any illusion of understanding. Instead, the film emphasizes the incomprehensibility of such a tragedy. The participants recount disturbing details of arrests and deportations, cannibalism, the murders of entire families—ordeals so inhuman and unfathomable that depiction could bring no fuller comprehension.
Respite comes in the form of the river itself—a view of the opposite bank, a tree’s shadow on the blue-green ripples, a lingering shot of water filling the frame. These interludes occur without preface between the stories of bloodshed and survival. Through the juxtaposition of these images with the anguished words that precede them, the river grows in significance as the film continues. A woman tells of the brutal slaying by armed guards of her aunts and sister while fetching drinking water. After such a tragedy, the river is not a border but a site of violence. “It’s not easy talking about Mauritania… We can’t exhaust its water,” one witness confesses. “Our woes… are infinite, like this river,” another says. The river is not a border; it is a reminder of incalculable grief.
The interspersed river shots are Diago’s most explicitly authorial flourishes. The observational style allows the forty participants, arrayed in lush blues, oranges, greens, and purples, to guide the audience’s experience of the film; their words and reactions to one another tell the story. Extended silences create space for grief and allow those speaking to set the pace for their own retellings. In long shots, multiple people crowd the frame talking, praying, weeping—poignant images of a makeshift community of survivors. The film’s many close-ups emphasize the individual selfhood of each person, each wrinkle testifying to the fullness of a life arising out of and in spite of immense tragedy. The documentary acts as a memorialization of these people (and, by extension, all those affected by the events of 1989), not by making the details of their experiences visible but by making the people who endured them visible.
The film ends by the river with Abdoulaye Diop, his family, and Diago facing Mauritania on the opposite bank. Though it is implied earlier, here we learn Diop is legally blind, as he asks his wife to describe what she sees on the other side. Diop embodies the film’s ideas of sight as both impossible and necessary for healing. The gathering of these witnesses may have given them a newfound way of being seen, but it cannot repair the harm done to them; similarly, Diop may someday return to Mauritania, but he will never truly see it again.
His wife envisions such a return: “I would have liked you to come back with your sight… Then you could say to me and my children where you worked, where you lived, what streets there were.” Somehow, by the river’s edge, the film ends with an articulation of hope, however tenuous. “That day will come,” Diop responds. “One day.”