Apolline Traoré’s 2017 film Borders unfolds across a sequence of rich and beautiful landscapes and cityscapes, following the journey of a group of four women from Dakar (Senegal) to Lagos (Nigeria), passing through Bamako (Mali), Cotonou (Benin), and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) along the way. The film, Traoré’s third feature, is an experience of motion, novelty, and adventure: each day of the trip and each arrival into a different city is indicated by intertitle text, and frequent shots of the moving bus or the urban approach coupled with a gorgeous soundtrack make the movie feel actually transporting. This is a remarkable re-framing of the road movie, with its masculine and US-centered baselines of open road, heroic exploit, and self-discovery. Here, instead, the journey leads the four women—Adjara, Emma, Sali, and Micha—through trials of extortion, harassment, and rape. They confront and reveal personal demons and family histories; they come to examine their motives for travel; they witness a bloody car accident; they spend a night sleeping on the roadside after a breakdown; they form unlikely friendships and alliances. That all of this action is centered almost exclusively on the four African women—different in personality, age, nationality, class, and cultural and religious backgrounds—is notable in itself, as is its direction by Traoré, who is from Burkina Faso and completed her film training in the US.
In other words, there’s plenty to say here about gender and genre. For example, the film works a strange tension between monotony and melodrama: the boredom inherent in a multi-day bus journey is largely not shown, and episodic adventures follow immediately one after the other, while the melodramatic tropes Traoré invokes are suspenseful and surprising, especially at the film’s end. Moreover: at a moment at which many popular US film directors are experimenting—with varying degrees of success—with gender-flipping films, it’s worth thinking about how this works in Borders both to illuminate the ways in which the experience of the border is inflected by gender (more on this) and to evoke a real and touching community of women. There’s a comic scene, for example, when the bus’s newest and most handsome passenger, a dapper middle-aged man, becomes purely the ridiculous subject who brings the women together as they realize that, napping, he’s the one whose flatulence has made the ride suddenly unbearable. When the bus stops for a break, and he approaches them, they respond with something along the lines of: after you’ve been stink-bombing us this whole time? Get out of here! Like many moments in the film, this one feels unexpected in the movies in general: a frank picture of sturdy intimacy between girlfriends carved out of an otherwise hostile and masculine environment.
There is also the movie’s specific cultural and geographical context. Traoré participates in and extends the rich legacy of Burkinabe cinema, for which the struggle against gender imbalance is ongoing (as it is elsewhere). The film premiered to great acclaim in 2017 at the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, or FESPACO, which has been an institution of African cinema since 1969. In materials accompanying the film’s release and a recent screening in Paris, Traoré frames her intervention in terms of a specific geographical configuration: ECOWAS, or the Economic Community of West African States. Established in 1975 by the treaty of Lagos, this economic union was formed to promote trade and exchange—of goods, people, cultures—across its member states. According to Traoré, Borders is intended to show the persistence of what still hinders free motion across national boundaries: “the goal of this film,” Traoré writes,
is in part to raise awareness among our States about the problem of borders, and in part to show—through the commitment of these women, who are proof of real community in their daily struggles for their families—the type of community sought by ECOWAS and prescribed for our states. Above all, this film takes account of the permanent dangers present along the cross-border routes, which cause enormous suffering to populations.
In addition to this depiction of community and the obstacles to it, finally, Traoré charges her film with imparting practical knowledge to some of its spectators. “I decided to make this film,” she writes, “not only to show the struggles of African women but to demonstrate that things can change on a smaller scale.” Traoré is referring to the film’s almost pedagogical interest in the factual details of the rights of border-crossers, the frequent impingement on those rights by border-enforcers, and the kinds of resistance that succeed or fail. The director’s stated moral here is pragmatic: know your rights at the border, and know what kinds of action are available—and what kinds aren’t.
But Borders also opens onto different and broader questions about borders, and what borders are, and what they do. For me, one of the film’s most striking moments was a scene showing a particularly deserted border crossing. I remember it now as a still photograph: the bus has pulled off beside the road, the passengers are disembarked and lined up quietly behind a table in the dust beside the road. A single man sits behind the table. While other of the film’s borders are significantly more elaborate—fences, offices, waiting rooms, lines of soldiers, arms, noise, scuffles, chaos and commotion—this one very simply consists of a road, a table, a chair, a man, and a government stamp. The concept of “border” starts to look much starker: no visible boundary, no other physical impediment. While we are perhaps mostly used to thinking of borders as configurations of fences and walls, as what keeps people out, this scene reveals something about the essence of a border as a site of power over passage. An essential function of the border is to be permeable. It is this differential permeability that means that some people and goods get through and some don’t. Or, in the words of Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, in their 2013 book Border as Method, borders are also “instruments for managing, calibrating, and governing global passages of people, money, and things.” They continue: “borders are […] devices of inclusion that select and filter people and different forms of circulation in ways no less violent than those deployed in exclusionary measures.”
Now, in the summer of 2018—at least in US and European imaginaries—the question of borders seems largely centered on the construction or performance of violent and deadly exclusionary measures: detention facilities at the US-Mexico border, the erection and systematic eradication of migrant camps and communities in Europe, the refusal of aid or port to vessels crossing the Mediterranean, the genocidally disproportionate use of force by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian protestors at the Gaza border. This is not to draw attention away from any of these immediate crises. But what Traoré’s film reminds us is that the border itself, even devoid of its attendant apparatuses, is a problematic institution. A border is what the rich, white, and / or male move through at will, more easily than others; even in its most stripped-down form, a border exists for the exercise of power against those populations whose movements it controls. As Traoré shows, who crosses—and at what cost—depends on lines of race, class, and gender. For the women of the film, despite their community and commitment, and despite their courage and creativity in smuggling, bribing, scheming, hiding, and escaping, the border is a fundamentally hostile entity. Traoré’s film is a provocation to think both questions of “who gets in” and beyond those questions, since even a permeable border—or especially a permeable border—functions as a site of exploitation, profit, and struggle.