(Dir. Djibril Diop Mambéty, Senegal, 1973)
It isn’t often that we in the West get to hear from the entire continent of Africa with respect to their art. Of course, we have our famous imports that have made an indelible mark on various art forms worldwide: the music of Fela Kuti, the words of novelist Chinua Achebe, the talents of the ubiquitous Djimon Hounsou. But, even the most dedicated cinephile might be hard-pressed to name a well-known African filmmaker. Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène might come closest with most of his recent works occasionally available in the U.S., but other than that, most Western moviegoers don’t have a clue what African cinema (let alone individual national cinemas) has to say. Thus, as with other traditionally less developed pockets of the world, film culture’s consensus machine has chosen one film to represent an entire region. Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Cannes-approved Touki Bouki – recently restored, thanks to the efforts of Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, and now enshrined in the Criterion Collection – bears the burden of the dubious honor of representing African cinema to the rest of the world.
Today, that honor is both a blessing and curse, it seems, for Mambéty’s film. For in one sense, its revered status ensures its continued recognition, and rightfully so; Touki Bouki is an exceptional work that has stood the test of time. But, in another sense, it’s been said that Mambéty’s distinct work is notably different from what has been deemed typical of most African cinema. Thus, it may stand as an unintentional barrier to other films more indicative of the accepted shared traits of the continent’s aesthetic. Perhaps this very distinction accounts for Touki Bouki’s unlikely international appeal. Its stylistic influences are obvious and commented on incessantly – those jump cuts, frenetically edited montages, and its disjointed soundtrack all signal the then-recent French New Wave that swept the European film community at large only a few years prior. Mambéty certainly adopts Godard’s anarchic approach to filmmaking, but he’s also no mere copycat. There’s a playfulness, a charm, to Touki Bouki that is distinctly its own. Mambéty brilliantly constructs his sequences non-linearly allowing his audience to piece together what happens when, but there’s also a subtle shift in the film’s back half that focuses his narrative to arrive at a rather powerful conclusion.
For though this re-appropriated European trend is utilized to stunning effect here, the lasting significance of Mambéty’s film lies elsewhere. As mentioned above, the African perspective is decidedly absent from much of art, but perhaps even rarer still are stories of colonialism filtered through African paradigms. One of the best filmic commentators on post-colonial Africa is Claire Denis who navigates contentious issues such as racism (Chocolat) and political upheaval (White Material) without condescension and as balanced as possible. And yet, she still speaks from the vantage point of a foreigner in a once conquered land. She is a white European, and thus her films will never fully capture the other side. In contrast, Touki Bouki is a wondrously subtle, yet unmistakable commentary on post-colonial Senegal as the nation reckons with its recent independence and its desire to modernize to keep up with the rest of the twentieth century world.
At its center is the unhurried story of a mischievous young cow herdsman Mory (Magaye Niang) who convinces his lover, the stoic and determined university student Anta (Mareme Niang), to flee their boring, stunted life and head for France in hopes of a better one. As a farmer and a student, the pair possesses very little between them, a hindrance to Mory’s grand schemes, so they concoct various plans to steal their way onto a ship bound for Paris. The film’s title translates to Journey of the Hyena, and it’s clear that Mory is the titular beast who persists in stirring up trouble and brings his presumably more respectable girlfriend down with him. Mambéty infuses his story with enough humor and his characters with enough charm that we sympathize with their cause nonetheless. After several thwarted efforts, the pair eventually manages to succeed in securing a large sum of money by stealing from a wealthy flamboyant businessman (Ousseynou Diop) whose kneejerk attraction to Mory spells his own undoing.
Mory and Anta make off with the man’s cash, a heap of his finest clothes, and his luxury car and parade their newfound affluence through town before heading to the port. Once they reach the ship, Mory faces a climactic decision as Anta willingly boards, but he’s suddenly struck with the prospect of abandoning his roots. He stalls, the pair shares a knowing glance, and then he bolts in the opposite direction back toward Dakar. The film ends with Mory sulking on a staircase outside the port after having retrieved the steer’s skull that adorned his motorbike as the ship pulls away from harbor, carrying Anta now bound for France alone. This post-colonial attitude – a reckoning of personal roots that tie Senegalese to both tradition and land with the promise of supposed greener pastures awaiting them in the former European motherland – consumes Mory throughout the film, and ultimately he and Anta choose separate paths.
Though Mory’s indecision is entirely unspoken, the film is rife with a visualization of the young man’s inner turmoil. Mambéty includes many shots of rural Senegalese life and at least one crucial memory of Mory’s that ties him superficially to the skull on his bike and more deeply to his homeland that he’s reluctant to abandon. Then, perhaps more overtly, Mambéty cleverly courts the romanticized version of France that Mory buys into with the repetition of a snippet of Josephine Baker’s song “Paris, Paris.” The line “Paris, Paris, Paris / You’re a kind of paradise on Earth” is repeated throughout and becomes almost a leitmotif of the pair’s dreams of a new life in France. This brilliant juxtaposition of European sophisti-pop with images of rugged and vibrant Senegalese life is just one of the many instances of Mambéty’s visualization of his post-colonial nation’s grappling with an imported modernity.
Undoubtedly, Touki Bouki stands as a highly accomplished work of art; one of those rare films where the eye-catching aesthetic perfectly matches its themes and narrative. Throughout, Mambéty consistently subverts viewer expectations – one of the film’s few white characters is also its inexplicable loose cannon, and one of the film’s most insignificant characters is granted a short scene featuring the sole use of voiceover narration as a window to his seemingly trivial thoughts. Each of these is masterfully executed in its own right, but one such scene is worth commenting on further.
Early on in the film Anta is given false information regarding Mory’s tumble over a cliff, and as she scurries down the steep precipice – in a series of shots Mambéty already includes even earlier in the film free of context – she abruptly comes to a stop. She is facing the camera, but her expression is difficult to read as she undresses and dips below the frame. Has she jumped into the ocean having spotted Mory? It’s unclear at first, but when Mambéty cuts to a few shots of waves breaking on the rocks below, we can hear what either sounds like moaning or stifled sobbing. He then cuts to Anta’s hand gripping an ornament on the back of Mory’s motorbike – the first indication that she must be somewhere near him. But, it’s only when the sound of her voice intensifies coupled with the image of her grip loosening and when Mambéty immediately cuts to an enormous wave crashing on the rocks that we are certain she and Mory are having sex. This perfectly cued juxtaposition of a hand falling limp and the subsequent rush of water is one unsubtle visual metaphor for climaxing, but it’s also likely one of the most audacious depictions of sex on film. Mambéty refuses to fetishize the act of sex by keeping his camera off the pair and misdirecting his audience until the very last second. The moment, then, is unexpectedly sensual, but not overtly erotic. As one commentator suggested, perhaps this was Mambéty’s own subversion of the sexualized African myth many a Westerner believed at this time. Either way, it’s easily one of the film’s best scenes.
In many ways, Touki Bouki is probably best understood by a Senegalese audience. On a purely stylistic level, there’s much to admire here for viewers of any nation. And, as an exploration of African attitudes following a monumental political shift of power, it’s an important work for anyone interested in twentieth century African history to see. But, there are more than a few touches that may be lost on Western viewers. Given the sheer amount of detail Mambéty lends to his visual metaphors, it’s likely that the inclusion of several shots of cows being slaughtered accounts for some major aspect of Mory’s story, but here those of us unaccustomed to traditional Senegalese ways or even attitudes on the rural/urban divide within the nation can only speculate as to their meaning. Of course, Mambéty’s film is no less for it. If anything, it makes his Touki Bouki a very special work, one with an unmistakably African voice.