by Matt Levine
“It is good for the future of cinema that Africa exists. Cinema was born in Africa, because the image itself was born in Africa. The instruments, yes, are European, but the creative necessity and rationale exist in our oral tradition… Africa is a land of images, not only because images of African masks revolutionized art throughout the world but as a result, simply and paradoxically, of oral tradition. Oral tradition is a tradition of images… Imagination creates the image and the image creates cinema, so we are in direct lineage as cinema's parents.”
— Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1998
The distribution of foreign films in the United States is always something of a crapshoot, subject to the overriding motivation of profits and the impingement of political baggage; the Weinstein Company’s butchering (or “Americanization”) of Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster is only the most recent and egregious example. Maybe the most unfortunate oversight in this regard, though, is the paucity of African films released in America over the last fifty years—an omission which leads many stateside moviegoers to the assumption that various African film industries are either nascent or nonexistent, though in fact some of them have been pushing the boundaries of cinematic expression since the mid-twentieth century. When we think of “African” movies in this country, titles such as Tsotsi and Hotel Rwanda might come to mind, though such films depend heavily on Western co-production and are guided at least in part by audience expectations in Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, filmmakers in countries such as Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria strive towards a uniquely African cinema, making movies that speak to and for a particular culture while employing a diverse cinematic vocabulary indebted to everything from Eisenstein to the French New Wave.
Walker Art Center
Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Producer: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Writer: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Cinematographers: Georges Bracher, Pap Samba Sow
Editors: Siro Asteni, Emma Mennenti
Music: Mado Robin
Cast: Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang, Aminata Fall, Ousseynou Diop
Premiere: July 1973 – Moscow Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 15, 1991
US Distributor: World Cinema Foundation (restoration)
As the Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty (who passed away in July 1998) suggests in the epigraph above, cinema—like all other forms of visual storytelling—depends on the oral tradition that dates back to ancient African cultures, some of the earliest forms of creative expression. It’s ludicrous, of course, to attempt to lump an entire continent’s cinema into one label, and a fair-minded appraisal of African movies would pay diligent attention to the differences between Senegalese and Malian and Egyptian movies; yet, at the same time, it’s clear that many burgeoning North African filmmakers in the decades following independence employed similarly disjunctive methods to convey the combustion of cultures that tenuously defined post-colonial society. Directors like Mambéty and the Malian filmmaker Cheick Oumar Sissoko re-appropriate tropes from a number of previous styles and movements (Hollywood narratives, European New Waves, Soviet montage, Latin American agit-prop, etc.) into a dynamic expression of a rich and multivalent African heritage.
Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973) is a landmark in this regard. Widely heralded as one of the most important African movies ever made (for what it’s worth, it was the highest-ranked African title on Sight & Sound’s 2012 Greatest Films poll, at number 93), Mambéty’s brash, volatile film simultaneously lampoons those Senegalese who dream of escaping to France for a better life, and those French neo-colonialists who continue to perceive Senegal as a misguided neophyte in need of “guidance.” If the Senegalese setting seen here betrays a turbulent clash of European and African cultures, Touki Bouki itself is an abrasive blend of playful abstraction, wicked satire, and dreary political commentary—a film whose disorienting experimentation masks a bitter core.
The title is Wolof for The Voyage of the Hyena, although who or what that doglike scavenger is supposed to be remains ambiguous. It could be Mory (Magaye Niang), a handsome but sullen cowherd who rides around Dakar on a motorbike with bull’s horns affixed to the handlebars; or his lover, Anta (Mareme Niang), a university student awkwardly wedged between the Western system of education instilled by French colonialism and her family’s more traditional, agrarian lifestyle (when we first see her, she’s demanding payment for rice from one of her mother’s regular customers). More figuratively, the hyena of title could be Senegal itself, as Mambéty has also cryptically proposed in interviews: “The hyena is an African animal—you know that. It never kills. The hyena is falsehood, a caricature of man… The hyena is a permanent presence in humans, and that is why man will never be perfect.” Given Mambéty’s ambivalent portrayal of his homeland in Touki Bouki, perhaps he sees the country itself as a potent caricature of human aimlessness, partway on its journey from colonialism to independence.
Touki Bouki consists of Mory and Anta’s outsized schemes to gain enough money for them to hitch a seafaring ride to France on one of the ocean liners docked in the port of Dakar, but—like the French New Wave films on which Touki Bouki is partially patterned (especially Godard’s Breathless)—the plot is not as important as the diversions and abstractions along the way. As much as Mambéty’s film is a portrait of Senegal’s disillusioned postcolonial youth, it is also a cerebral depiction of a nation at a crossroads, trying to deal with the contradistinctive cultures coalescing to form a turbulent modern society. This is obvious from the very first moments of the film, an explosive mixture of metaphorically related scenes emphasizing the difference (or lack thereof) between animals and man. The elongated horns of cattle form a visual motif in these early images, as footage of Mory shepherding his cattle through a tranquil field is juxtaposed with imagery of Mory driving his horned motorcycle through the city, as well as graphic footage of cows being slaughtered in an abattoir. (Those viewers who are disturbed by animal brutality on film might squirm at the movie’s opening butchery, as well as similar sequences of bloodletting later on; there is a point to the carnality, as we’re asked to ponder if and how the human characters are at all superior to the beasts they kill, though that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.) Reminiscent of a similarly violent montage in Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925), Touki Bouki’s aggressive prologue posits recurring themes of animalism and power through juxtapositional editing. Such elliptical jump cuts are familiar, again, from the French New Wave, though the technique’s reiteration here reminds us of the dialectical materialism theorized by Marx: the idea that new insights into meaning and existence may be formulated from evolutionary changes. In other words, the past in conflict with the present—a uniquely cinematic idea, though few filmmakers have employed this time-altering philosophy to profound effect.
The temporal and spatial experimentation continues from here, making musical use of repetition and tempo (indeed, Mambéty was a composer early in his career). A woman’s demonstrative soliloquy is sung to the camera in the matter of a griot, a traditional African storyteller who would often address the audience directly to comment upon the action; meanwhile, the shrieks of seagulls and sound of breaking waves commingle harshly on the soundtrack. A sex scene between Mory and Anta is introduced so enigmatically that it initially seems like a suicidal ceremony—at least until the sounds of crashing waves morph imperceptibly into Anta’s orgasmic moans. Interactions between characters in the elusive narrative often shift brusquely into observational scenes of life in Dakar, such as the transportation of water jugs and a wrestling match at a bustling sports arena.
The film almost obligatorily moves onwards with its plot, as Mory and Anta steal a trunk from a racetrack that is revealed to contain a human skeleton; later, they finally pilfer a stash of money and some foppish clothing from a wealthy homosexual who lives on the outskirts of Dakar (one of the movie’s more questionable interludes). There’s also a primitive aborigine—ironically played by a white actor—who emerges from the sub-Saharan foliage, steals Mory’s motorcycle, and ultimately provides the film’s morbid ending. The symbolism is vague and emphatic at the same time: is Mory’s motorbike an emblem for Senegal itself, a reminder of his heritage? Is the aboriginal character a representation of humanity at the dawn of time, somehow transplanted millennia into the future? Does the climactic car accident symbolize modern Senegal, steered into a collision with the dubious influence of French colonists (the motorbike does, after all, slam into an elegant French automobile)? Mambéty’s elusive, thought-provoking style asks far-reaching questions and leaves us with the cryptic glimmer of an answer.
Mambéty has said that one of his predominant themes is how neo-colonial relations are “betraying [African nations’] hopes of independence for the false promises of Western materialism”—an antagonism clearly conveyed by Touki Bouki. But the director conveys this agitative theme with a wicked sense of humor, as evidenced by the Josephine Baker song “Paris, Paris, Paris” frequently lilting on the soundtrack as a sarcastic anomaly. The film is guilty of some broad stereotypes—not only of the effete gay man who seems to be holding a never-ending bacchanalia at his oceanside villa, but also of the French bourgeoisie, who blatantly claim that the Senegalese natives are “just big kids.” But the transparency of Mambéty’s pessimism is in fitting with Touki Bouki’s abrasive ferocity: the movie is disgusted with the current state of affairs and can barely conceal its disdain.
A harsh, ambiguous comment on post-colonial turmoil probably doesn’t sound like the most compelling film, but even amid Touki Bouki’s anger and volatility, an invigorating expression of national identity makes itself heard. Mambéty has never hidden the fact that he hopes to speak for and to a uniquely Senegalese audience; along with Ousmane Sembène, who helped kick-start the Senegalese film industry with his feature debut Black Girl (1968), Mambéty proposed an uncompromising view of what African expression on film might entail. Even aside from technical experimentation and political commitment, the film is gorgeous to look at—shot on pristine color film, Touki Bouki is a ravishingly vibrant explosion of color, from the lush reds of the wardrobes to the infinite blue of the sky and sparkling sunlight on the ocean waves. Viscerally and thematically, Touki Bouki is a wonder to behold.
In its narrative and character development, however, the film might leave a slight taste of disappointment—if only because the bittersweet separation of Anta, who finally boards her ship to France, and Mory, who is unable to part ways with his Senegalese roots, fails to convey the emotional impact the film seems to intend. Touki Bouki has emphasized its political undercurrents and stylistic innovations so provocatively that its attempts at pathos seem halfhearted. But this is only a partial flaw for a movie which beholds conventional storytelling as only one of its numerous aims. In its broadly ambitious goals and diverse influences, Touki Bouki recalls a number of other African films from the 1970s that recycled international film conventions into something uniquely pertinent to African audiences. It is, at the same time, markedly different from the ardent didacticism of Sembène or the compelling narratives of the Malian Souleymane Cissé—a reminder that each national culture (not to mention each individual filmmaker) is unique in its influences and personality. While it’s perpetually disheartening that screenings of African films in the US are relegated to film festivals and cinematheques, a reminder that the entire cinematic breadth of the globe is infinitely surprising in its vitality and eclecticism—like the one that Touki Bouki offers—can only be an electrifying sensation.