Touki bouki: Mambéty and Modernity

On Film / Essays — Dec 10, 2013

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of the late Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki bouki (The Hyena’s Journey) and its seminal place within African cinema. A debut feature made for thirty thousand dollars by a self-taught twenty-eight-year-old director who had previously made only two shorts (albeit remarkable films in their own right), Touki bouki won the FIPRESCI prize at the 1973 Moscow International Film Festival and single- handedly challenged stale critical assumptions that African cinema was inextricably wedded to social realism and immune to experimental narrative strategies. Of course, Mambéty’s film is fascinating for the way it harnesses many of francophone African cinema’s traditional antinomies—the conflict between tradition and modernity, rural versus urban sensibilities, and the ravages of the colonialist inheritance that coexist with the corruption and bad faith of neocolonialism. But the film’s singular accomplishment is itssuccess in recasting and recontextualizing these motifs in a truly startling fashion.

Even the work of a brilliant enfant terrible does not exist in a vacuum, however, and it’s crucial to emphasize that the Senegalese film industry that produced this remarkable talent experienced something of a golden age during the sixties and seventies. With the release in 1963 of Borom Sarret, Ousmane Sembène’s pathbreaking debut short, the former dockworker, union organizer, and novelist began a distinguished career and earned a worldwide reputation as the country’s preeminent filmmaker. Unlike either Hollywood movies or European political cinema, Sembène’s films refused to choose between a focus on the individual and an exaltation of the collective will. This could be viewed as a distinctively African strategy, since the continent’s communal ethos has traditionally nurtured an emphasis on the role of the individual within a greater collectivity. Sembène, the “father of African film,” inspired a vibrant second generation of directors, animated by equally vigorous aesthetic and political ideals. Mahama Johnson Traoré’s films, particularly The Maiden (1969) and The Lady (1970), were preoccupied with the plight of Senegalese women. Moussa Yoro Bathily, who served an apprenticeship as Sembène’s assistant, became known for innovative documentaries.

Yet as Manthia Diawara demonstrates in his book African Cinema: Politics & Culture, this golden age was ridden with contradictions, inasmuch as efforts to forge an aesthetically vibrant and politically acute African cinema were tinged with the same vestiges of neocolonialism that many of the most influential films of the era vigorously critiqued. Since the lion’s share of the most notable Senegalese films of the sixties were made possible by French production money, the government formed the Société National de Cinéma, an adjunct of the Ministry of Culture, in 1973, to nurture local production and subsidize Senegalese filmmakers. But even this organization was marred by the fact that, although it funneled money to homegrown directors, it failed to provide financial support for a local film infrastructure, meaning that the industry was still dependent on France for purchasing film stock and renting equipment, as well as for film processing and editing facilities. Many of these facilities eventually closed—including the one that housed the materials needed for the restoration of this print of Touki bouki—and an important cinematic legacy became endangered.

Given Sembène’s preeminent place within Senegalese and African cinema, it is perhaps not surprising that his legacy has inspired a pronounced “anxiety of influence” among the generations of African directors that have followed him. The key to Sembène’s complex appeal to filmmakers who continue to wrestle with his legacy resides in his dual focus on both the inequities of Western colonialism and the tendency of African elites to internalize the same colonialist mentality, replete with corruption and class stratification, which inspired a wave of liberation movements in the post–World War II era. Even though there are clear affinities between the plight of the eponymous protagonist of Borom Sarret and Antonio’s downward spiral in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), Sembène’s tale of a destitute cart driver who loses the vehicle that earns him his livelihood is both more militant and less concerned with life-affirming humanist bromides.

While Mambéty’s equally impressive sophomore short, Badou Boy (1970), is frequently viewed as his personal reworking of Borom Sarret, many scholars tend to pit Sembène, the elder statesman, against Mambéty, the fiery upstart. Film historians continue to promulgate the view that Sembène represents a “realistic” tendency in African cinema while Mambéty’s work embodies a less “analytical,” more “poetic” and modernist strain. Indeed, from a superficial perspective, Mambéty’s experimental style is far removed from earlier examples of African social realism, whether exemplified by Sembène’s ostensible debt to neorealism or Safi Faye’s synthesis of documentary and autobiography. (I made more or less the same assertion in a 1995 article on Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyenas, in Iris.) On closer examination, however, although the stylistic chasm between Mambéty’s and Sembène’s work is still indisputable, I’d argue that the opposition between a “realistic” Sembène and an intransigently “modernist” Mambéty is slightly simplistic.

Sembène’s Xala (1975), supposedly the work of an intractable social realist, includes certain scenes, particularly a bravura finale in which a hapless businessman is spat upon by beggars, that wouldn’t be out of place in a Luis Buñuel film. Conversely, Mambéty shares most of Sembène’s political and social preoccupations. Both directors, whether explicitly or opaquely, recapitulate Frantz Fanon’s belief that decolonization often breeds a paradoxical compulsion to mimic the behavior of the deposed colonizer. This polemical thrust is especially apparent in Mambety’s Hyenas—a film that recasts many of Touki bouki’s themes—highlighting the behavior of avaricious African villagers, whose greed mirrors the economic malfeasance of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

It’s also undeniable that a modernist strain is part of Senegal’s postindependence legacy. After all, Léopold Senghor, who served as the country’s president from 1960 to 1980, was present at the creation of African modernism. As one of the key contributors to the journal Présence africaine, founded in Paris in 1947, he was part of a literary movement that synthesized such European intellectual currents as surrealism and existentialism with Pan-Africanism and a variant of black pride known as Négritude. Ironically enough, Mambéty’s brand of African modernism mercilessly dissects the failure of Senghor’s Senegal to employ an African socialist model to alleviate the plight of the country’s poor.

A heavy drinker with a rebellious streak, Mambéty tried his hand at acting as a young man but was quickly fired after a short stint at Dakar’s Daniel Sorano National Theater. While his films were no less radical than those of his compatriots, literal-minded nationalists occasionally attacked him for a supposed overreliance on Western motifs and source material. Yet Mambéty’s films demonstrate that European modernism and indigenous African modes are not irreconcilable polarities. Hyenas is based on The Visit, Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 tragicomedy, and Mambéty was certainly not sheepish about expressing his indebtedness to a European writer; at the time of the film’s release, he proclaimed that “it is a joy for me to pay tribute to Friedrich Dürrenmatt.” Mambéty’s adaptation, however, is more a slyly subversive appropriation of Western modernism than a concession to its homogenizing lingua franca.

Although Touki bouki has been compared to such outlaw-couple movies as Pierrot le fou (1965) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the bare-bones plot, which revolves around the exploits of a larcenous rebel, Mory, and his efforts to flee the country for an idealized France with his girlfriend, Anta, is merely the departure point for a jaundiced look at Senegalese modernity and its discontents. The film’s playful deployment of kinetic, associative editing, accompanied by a frequently poetic disjunction of sound and image, confirms that Mambéty was as inspired by Sergei Eisenstein and avant-garde traditions as he was by post–New Wave road movies. The eccentric spatial and temporal shifts crystallize essentially unresolvable tensions between rural traditions and urban anomie. Even before the opening credits appear, the transition between a pastoral scene in which a young boy, possibly Mory, herds cows and the bloody floor of an abattoir accelerates the contrasts between a premodern agrarian milieu and bureaucratized, industrialized modernity. When Mory finally emerges in Dakar, he’s astride a motorcycle adorned on the front with a steer’s skull and long horns and on the back with a Dogon cross—a symbol associated with Malian religious traditions. The film’s syncretic impulse manifests itself in these images of cultural cross-fertilization, a maneuver that recalls scholar Robert Stam’s memorable phrase “atavistic modernism.”

Touki bouki refuses to endorse either a nostalgic view of the African past or a blinkered enthusiasm for contemporary mores and the ideology of progress. Although Mambéty’s idiosyncratic editing patterns generate a certain amount of head-scratching, the puzzlement is always productive and never gratuitous. A sequence of staggering complexity, in which shots of Mory chained to a truck by Anta’s disgruntled classmates (she is apparently abandoning her revolutionary duties by consorting with him) are intercut with scenes of Anta’s aunt denouncing the renegade as a ne’er-do-well and a shot of the aunt skinning a goat, highlights Mambéty’s tendency to eschew superfluous dialogue and heavy-handed rhetoric. As with most sophisticated examples of montage, the precise significance of this agglutination of images must be determined by the viewer. In general terms, the sequence can be viewed as the director’s backhanded, slightly mischievous tribute to his invigoratingly disrespectful protagonist. Neither a sloganeering pseudo-revolutionary like Anta’s classmates nor a moralistic traditionalist like her aunt, Mory is a shape-shifter whose status as an outsider and an inveterate trickster links him to the hyena (bouki), an animal that in African oral tradition represents wiliness and an ability to both deceive and be deceived.

Like many of his rebellious counterparts in American and European films, Mory’s rampage is fueled by hunger for money and the lure of a false paradise: France, an elusive object of desire throughout the film (evoked repeatedly by Josephine Baker’s paean to Paris on the soundtrack), is, in reality, far from a refuge for discontented youths but rather a country still riddled with racism and colonialist values. (The film’s multilayered soundtrack, a skillful amalgam of ambient sounds, Western pop tunes, African drums, and avant-garde jazz, provides aural commentary on the couple’s oscillation between African values and the West.) But unlike with the outlaw couples in films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands (1973), Mory and Anta’s lust for money is never merely narcissistic; their restlessness corresponds to the fate of countless Senegalese young people who yearn to extricate themselves from poverty, and the encroachments of stifling traditions, but find that exile breeds an even more profound sense of alienation. Mambéty employs dark humor to drive home these quandaries. In a pivotal scene, Mory makes a comical attempt to steal the proceeds of a wrestling contest, earmarked for a memorial to General de Gaulle; when the trunk that supposedly contains the loot is eventually opened, a human skull pops out. Even after Mory successfully snags some cash by robbing a wealthy friend, his European dreams are contrasted with the bigoted chatter of departing French visitors, who cannot wait to flee a country they sneer at as a backwater.

In a fanciful sequence toward the end of the film, Mory and Anta are feted in a parade as they flaunt their newfound wealth in a Citroën emblazoned with the stars and stripes of the American flag. Despite being sullied by these foreign influences, Mory yearns to commune with the drums of a nearby griot. While the griot, or storyteller, has a responsibility to serve as the conscience of a community, Mory aligns himself with this legacy as traditional bonds of communal solidarity are eroding. Mambéty was a staunch admirer of his antiheroic protagonists. As he remarked in one of his last interviews, “I am interested in marginalized people because I believe that they do more for the evolution of a community than conformists. Anta and Mory . . . dream of finding some sort of Atlantis overseas. Following their dreams permitted me to follow my own dreams.” While Hyenas, one of the most critically dissected African films of the 1990s, was sadly Mambety’s final feature, two subsequent shorts, Le franc (1994) and the posthumously released The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (1999), succinctly encapsulate his tragicomic sensibility. His early death from lung cancer in 1998 was an irretrievable loss for the international film community.

A film long cherished by cinephiles and Africanists, Touki bouki can now be appreciated by a much wider public. The film is lauded in Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a documentary that gently chides film buffs for overlooking the riches of African cinema. The World Cinema Project’s gorgeous new print, which restores the film’s brilliant saturated color scheme, should be an added incentive for contemporary viewers to rediscover a modern classic.