Mory and Anta are young lovers who dream of escaping from the slums of Dakar, Senegal to the city of their dreams, Paris, capital of the former colonial power. Anta attempts to study at university, Mory rides around town on his motorbike decorated with zebu horns on the handlebar and an elaborate Dogon fetish as a backrest. They choose to wear ragged, filthy clothes, Anta dressed as a youth with her hair cropped short, while their contemporaries sport the latest 1970s striped flares and cool shades. Through a series of bizarre incidents and adventures they contrive to steal money, clothes and a chauffeured car. Anta leaves for France, but Mory is unable to board ship, left behind to a dubious fate in Dakar.
Djibril Diop Mambéty (1945–1998) was born to a Wolof family in Colobane, a small town on the fringes of Dakar; his father was an imam – ‘all these films are immersed within an Islamic context and affirm the importance of this influence in the daily lives of their characters’ (Niang 2002: 120). Mambéty trained as a stage actor, but was expelled from the National Theatre, Dakar, because he chose to spend more time working in café-théâtres and for Italian film projects. Senegal was entering a relatively self-confident period in the late 1960s during the presidency of the poet, Léopold Senghor; the first World Festival of Black Arts convened in Dakar in 1966, launching the careers of a number of Senegalese filmmakers. At the age of 24, after experimenting as a composer and with no experience of filmmaking, Mambéty made his first short, Contras’ City (City of Contrasts, 17 minutes), followed by Badou Boy (60 minutes), which won the Silver Tanit Award in 1970 at the Carthage Film Festival. Touki-Bouki, Mambéty’s first full-length feature, appeared in 1973, winning the International Critics’ Prize at Cannes and the Special Jury Award at the Moscow Film Festival; the budget for Touki-Bouki was $30,000, partly funded by the Senegalese state, but the film was, perhaps unsurprisingly, received critically in Dakar.
Mambéty made only one more feature, Hyènes (Hyenas, 1992), a continuation of Touki-Bouki in the sense that it showed the return of Linguère Ramatou, a woman like Anta, now ‘as rich as the World Bank’, to her home town in Senegal where she pursues a vendetta against the Mory figure, Draman Drameh: ‘The world made me a whore: I want to make the world a brothel’ (Speciale 1998: 54). Mambéty intended to complete a trilogy exploring the ravages of power and insanity with a third film, Malaika, which was not made. A second trilogy of short films, Contes des Petites Gens (Tales of Ordinary People), and intended as a parallel to the first group, featured poor, struggling individuals and is highly regarded, but was also incomplete at Mambéty’s death from lung cancer in 1998.
Mambéty said that Touki-Bouki was created out of anger: ‘Perhaps I could no longer stand the physiognomy of African cinema, which exasperated me, it was too superficial. Not on the ideological level, but on the level of form. It never pushed any further, nothing is ever shaken. This rage in a minor key gave birth to Touki-Bouki’ (Speciale 1998: 52); Mambéty was reacting against the example of more established Senegalese directors such as Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, who had made the first Francophone African film, Afrique sur Seine in 1955, and the socialist realism of Ousmane Sembène, then the most celebrated Senegalese novelist and director, whose Emitai was banned in 1973 because of its anti-colonialist content. The theme of escape to the promise of the good life in France was also the subject of Sembène’s La Noire de … (The Black Girl, 1966), but Touki-Bouki offers a radically different critique of the false dream because it is ‘the first African film that wore on its sleeve a postcolonial concern with how representation works’ (Oloruntoba 2008: 119).
Following this deconstructive vision, the opening sequence of Touki-Bouki is deceptive, in several ways, since it appears to meet audience expectations for a generic ‘African film’ of the early 1970s: a languorous pastoral shot, with ‘traditional’ flute music playing, and a large herd of zebu long-horn cattle being led towards the camera by a young boy, astride a cow. It is precisely these conventional expectations that Mambéty critiques and contradicts in the film that follows. Some viewers have also inferred that the child leading the herd is Mory himself, but this is not necessarily the case; the status of chronology, truth and reality are always at issue throughout Mambéty’s film owing to the critique of representation and cinematic form that he was compelled to follow.
The second sequence shows the fate of the zebu when the animals are unceremoniously slaughtered in filthy conditions. We then see the herdboy slowly returning, now without the cattle, and the sound of a motorbike displaces the African pastoral soundtrack. In the next, frantic sequence, the bike weaves dangerously close to shops and people, in an over-the-shoulder shot, Nouvelle Vague style, taken between the zebu horns. Mory had been a cowherd, like the child in the pre-credits sequence, but his innocence was lost in the slaughterhouse and now he struggles to survive in the slum districts of Dakar, and most significant of all, in an utterly different cinematic genre.
Mory comes off his bike trying to avoid a smart red jeep full of trendy young ‘political’ students. They accuse Mory of distracting Anta from their meetings and political work, and appear to begin to lynch him. Scenes of Mory being paraded, Christ-like, on the back of the jeep, a rope around his throat, his face covered in dust, are intercut with images of the slaughter of a goat; this shot recurs through the following sequence. We see Anta desperately seeking Mory, a search culminating in their meeting and lovemaking on a clifftop next to the ocean – a daring scene for African cinema of the early 1970s. As their passion moves to its climax, we see metaphorical shots, of breaking waves and Anta’s hand grasping the Dogon fetish that serves as a backrest on Mory’s bike. This elaborate cross is a sacred symbol of fertility among the nomadic herders whom Mory has abandoned for life in the city. Chronology and causality are manipulated to an extreme degree here. The same scene returns as the penultimate image of the film: was Mory in fact killed by the students? Was Anta remembering their happiest, most intimate moment, when he first talked of escaping to France in order to make their fortune so that they could return as a Wolof prince and princess? Is all the intervening action nothing but their shared fantasy? Some commentators have even located the entire action as a dream of the young cowherd, seen only in the framing sequences of the film.
That would be too simple, and the poetry of Mambéty’s genius lies in his complex manipulation of sound and image, reality and the fantastic. A viewer might think that Mambéty’s use of soundtrack derives directly from the practice of a European director like Godard, running against the image-track, dropping in subtle and beautiful moments, working parodically. As a child, Mambéty crept out of his home at night to listen to Westerns and Hindu films playing in the local open-air cinema – the Westerns were his favourite – but was unable to buy a ticket: ‘Maybe this is why I attach a lot of importance to sound in my films, as I heard films for a number of years before I saw them’ (Givanni 2011). Mambéty, a poet and sceptical filmmaker who once said that he had never made a film, took what he needed from European cinema courtesy of the Institute Française in Dakar, but his attitude to the work of the great directors as a model for African film was highly ambivalent. As a youth, like Mory and Anta, he had stowed away on a ship to Europe (but returned immediately), and he railed against Africans who ‘are pining for Europe [‘malades de l’Europe’], Africans who consider that Europe is the door to Africa and that one must have gone there in order to come back home and gain respect. In some sense it is about going to Europe for a training program in civilization’ (Cottenet-Hage 2004: 118). Anta and Mory’s illusory notion of Paris is undermined even by the haunting theme sung by the (black) chanteuse, Joséphine Baker, ‘Paris, Paris, Paris, C’est sur la terre entière le paradis’, because the phrase recurs, on a very tightly edited loop, which parodies the sentiment even as it moves the listener. ‘I do not choose the music, I choose the sound. All movement is accompanied by a sense .… sound is not something foreign to adorn the film. It is intrinsic to the film; it magnifies the action’ (Ukadike 1999: 4).
From the moment that Mory and Anta ride out of Aunt Oumi’s village entrance, they are a ‘couple on the run’, joining a long, dishonourable tradition in cinema: They Live by Night (1949), Pierrot le Fou (1965), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969) and, released in the same year as Touki-Bouki, Badlands (1973). After a series of picaresque adventures, some of which are persuasively realistic, and others ‘surreal’ in the strict sense of the word, fantastic if not fantasist, Anta and Mory finally manage to book passage on a liner to France. The other travellers are mostly black Senegalese young men, also hoping to find their fortune, or at least a living, in France. There are also a small number of distinctly unappealing European travellers, white settlers returning to France. A sequence very reminiscent of Godard’s anti-imperialist satire in Pierrot le Fou collages racist and neo-colonial opinion from these European passengers – ‘African art is a joke made up by journalists in need of copy’ – to which the film provides its own response.
Anta manages to board the vessel without difficulty, but as Mory approaches the gangplank we hear a Tannoy announcement, ‘Mr Diop is requested to see the Captain at once’. Most commentary on the film argues that Mory chooses to abandon Anta at this point because he loses his nerve, but if ‘Diop’ is his false identity (Mambéty’s own middle name, just as he gave his surname to a divisional commander of police in an earlier episode), then Mory realises that he is about to be arrested, and so has no choice but to run. The penultimate image of Touki-Bouki is of a small fishing boat slowly moving out of shot on the sunlit ocean, the craft that gave inspiration to Mory in the first place. As Mambéty put it, ‘When a story ends – or “falls into the ocean”, as we say – it creates dreams’ (Ukadike 1999: 4).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Senegal. Production Company: Cinegrit and Studio Kankourama. Director, Producer, Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty. Cinematographer: Georges Bracher. Art director: Aziz Diop Mambéty. Editor: Siro Asteni. Cast: Mareme Niang (Anta), Magaye Niang (Mory), Ousseynou Diop (Charlie), Aminata Fall (Oumi).]
Madeleine Cottenet-Hage, ‘Images of France in Francophone African Films (1978–1998)’ in Françoise Pfaff (ed.), Focus on African Films, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2004, pp. 107–23.
Vlad Dima, ‘Sound Moves: Displacement and Modernity in French and Senegalese Cinemas’ (DPhil. dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2010). Available at http://conservancy.umn. edu/bitstream/94324/1/ Dima_umn_0130E_11275.pdf (accessed 12 November 2012).
June Givanni, ‘The Master, the Rebel, and the Artist: The Films of Ousmane Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty, and Mousa Sene Absa’ (Museum of the Moving Image, 2011). Available at www.movingimage.us/films/2011/04/ 02/detail/the-master-the-rebel-and-the-artistthe-films-of-ousmane-sembne-djibril-diopmambty-and-moussa-sene-absa/ (accessed 12 November 2012).
Jean Narboni and Tom Milne (eds) Godard on Godard, New York, Secker and Warburg, 1972.
‘Laughter of a Celluloid Shaman’, Staff Reporter, Mail & Guardian, 23 August 1996. Available at http://mg.co.za/article/1996-08-23-laughter-ofa-celluloid-shaman (accessed 12 November 2012).
Sada Niang, Djibril Diop Mambéty: un cinéaste à contrecourant, Paris, Editions L’Harmattan, 2002. (Quotation translated by Nigel Wheale.)
Bunmi John Oloruntoba, Constructing a Postcolonialsurrealist Framework for West African Cinema: The Cinemas of Jean Rouch and Djibril Diop Mambéty, Regent University, 2008.
Alessandra Speciale, ‘Djibril, the Prince and Poet of African Cinema’, Écrans d’Afrique, 24, 1998. Available at www.africultures.com/ revue_africultures/articles/ecrans_afrique/24/ 24_6.pdf (accessed 12 November 2012). N. Frank Ukadike, ‘The Hyena’s Last Laugh. An Interview with
Djibril Diop Mambéty’, Transition 78, 8:2, 1999, pp. 136–53. Available at www. worldcat.org/title/hyenas-last-laugh-a-conversationwith-djibril-diop-mambety/oclc/58439307 (accessed 12 November 2012).
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.