Directed by: Djibril Diop Mambety
Screenplay by: Djibril Diop Mambety || Starring: Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang, Aminata Fall, Ousseynou Diop
Music by: Josephine Baker, Mado Robin, Aminata Fall || Cinematography: Pap Samba Sow || Editing by: Siro Asteni, Emma Mennenti || Country: Senegal || Language: Wolof, French
Running Time: 95 minutes
African cinema, particularly that of the sub-Saharan regions, has long been the shunned bastard child of world cinema. Frequently ignored by cinephiles and more or less entirely overlooked by general moviegoers in the West, most of those who appreciate the film industries of the “Dark Continent” are either professional film critics, film professors, or the occasional individual patient enough to sit through the entirety of Mark Cousin’s 15-hour documentary, The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011). Being a land historically torn by civil strife, human rights abuses, and imperialistic parasitism by European powers to this day, the fact that many African nations manage to have thriving film industries is an impressive feat. While it’s common knowledge that India’s national film stables (including the highly industrialized Bollywood) produce the most films of any country, few film fans are aware that the densely populated African nation of Nigeria is the second most prolific film-producer in the world.
African filmmakers like renowned Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (Xala , Black Girl ) were integral leaders in the 3rd Cinema movement of the post-colonial world during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. While African continental film has circulated well throughout its own nations and, to some extent, in other countries with similar colonial legacies, Northern Arab cinema and particularly sub-Saharan cinema has been underrepresented in global film appreciation.
Luckily, global appreciation for African film is on the rise thanks in part to proactive film restoration and preservation projects like Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and the World Film Foundation, organizations whose mission it is to preserve film history from all corners of the world. One of the latter organization’s most notable restored works is Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki, also known as “The Journey of the Hyena,” which was remastered in 2008 (FYI, it looks great!).
Mambety’s signature work represents one of the high-points of the golden age of Senegalese cinema during the 1960s-70s. It’s an ambiguous, complex, and indecisive observation of the then modern Senegal and the state of the country’s post-colonial culture. Through the journey of its protagonist, a headstrong and impatient teenage cowherd named Mory (Magaye Niang), the film analyzes the effects of European colonialism and the hybridization of European and African cultures in the second half of the 20th century. Lead character Mory dreams of leaving his boring, non-lucrative life as a rural cowherd behind and traveling to Paris, a city that is cultured and refined beyond all else in his imagination. As he journeys with female lead Anta (Mareme Niang) to reach their European paradise, their African odyssey makes wry and clever commentary on the lives of all kinds of Senegalese citizens, from the rural working-class peasants to the wealthier urban elite to the greedy politicians running the show and everyone in between.
Rounding out at a concise 95 minutes, Touki Bouki is an efficient, multi-faceted summary of the state of post-colonial Africa during the 1970s. The cultural dynamics of former colonizing states (in this case, the French) and former colonies are analyzed thoughtfully through clever montage sequences, juxtaposed crosscutting, an effective soundtrack, and colorful visual metaphors. The film can be slow at times despite the quick running time, and there’s not much in terms of breathless excitement or action scenes, but writer-director Mambety makes good use of satirical and slaptstick humor to entertain while he muses over sociopolitical matters of his native state. The fact that Mambety’s view of both his home nation and the parasitic colonial powers still affecting the former are balanced, mature, and refrain from hitting the audience over the head with a half-baked revolutionary message, is refreshing. Mambety’s screenplay takes a more nuanced approach to post-colonial history than say, Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas’ Hour of the Furnaces (1968). The lone area where Mambety’s writing becomes clumsy is in the laughable portrayal of a caricatured homosexual character that distracts from the maturity of the rest of the film. For the most part though, Touki Bouki is well thought out and restrained.
If you’re a newcomer to African film, which is generally the case for most non-African viewers who aren’t film professors, Mambety’s Touki Bouki provides a good all-around introduction to the 3rd Cinema golden age movements of sub-Saharan film industries. Like other well regarded political films from the continent, it’s heavy on colonial and post-colonial analysis as well as other social issues, but it’s an easily digestible piece of intelligent cinema that doesn’t stretch beyond its limits. It’s smart, funny, and more than a little quirky at times, qualities that outshine its narrative’s relative lack of ambition.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Touki Bouki’s story and premise examine sociopolitical matters of writer-director Mambety’s home country in ways that are easy to understand and appreciate. The film’s two leads are none too special but are well drawn enough to help us appreciate the narrative’s thematic content. Mambety’s uses a healthy mixture of fantasy sequences, montage edits, and memorable crosscutting to add European New Wave flavor to his African adventure. The soundtrack is also well utilized.
— However… despite the film’s short length, it’s slow pace characteristic of political films the world over occasionally drags it down. One caricature of a homosexual character is neither funny nor interesting.
? Paris… Paris… Paris…