The French New Wave finally made its way to Africa in the late 1960s, thanks in part to the French postcolonial presence on the African continent, which gave rise to the particularly influential artistic output of directors in Senegal, with films like Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (Journey of the Hyena,1973). Though originally a commercial flop, and previously only available in low-quality VHS releases, Touki Bouki was one of the first films restored in 2008 by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, which “preserves and restores neglected cinema from around the world.” Now in streaming format on the Criterion Channel, we can all see Mambèty’s brave film in a modern context.
Mambèty’s nonlinear tale shows two college students, Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang), as they scheme to steal some money, but after that plan fails, the two wander (and wonder) aimlessly around postcolonial Senegal. Repeating and spatial incongruities form Mory and Anta’s fantasy landscape as they attempt to break free from their colonial consciousness. The real daring of Mambèty, though, is in his stark refusal to be a propagandist.
Past critics have noted that Touki Bouki represents an aesthetic counterpoint to what is called Third Cinema, postcolonial cinema best represented in films like Gillo Pontecorvo‘s The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Ousmane Sembène‘s Black Girl (1966) two films with explicitly revolutionary politics, their aims toward anti-capitalism and, ultimately, decolonization.
In Touki Bouki, Mambèty’s filmmaking is, in fact, ambiguously political. He rebelliously refuses to make the sort of political statements that in many ways defined Francophone African cinema. This is not to say, of course, that Mambèty is apolitical; certainly, the images of violent animal bloodletting (such as when cattle are slaughtered and a goat’s throat is slit) and the film’s famous bull-horns, Mambèty’s images of fate, say otherwise. The representation of left politics in the film, signified by a group of hostile revolutionaries who hassle Mory and Anta, shows total defiance towards an African intellectual elite.
That’s because Mambéty’s goals in Touki Bouki weren’t unequivocally political. Using the road genre, a love story about two university students, Mory and Anta, Mambety’s camera syncretizes two different cultural practices—the aural and the aural-visual—into a distinctly African style of filmmaking that recontextualizes them both.
More recently, Touki Bouki has entered the public consciousness, through its appropriation by billionaire-millionaire artists Jay-Z and Beyoncé. In 2018, the couple recreated an iconic image from the film—with protagonists Anta and Mory on their fledgling motorcycle with mounted bull-horns—in a poster for their On the Run II tour (June-October 2018). Like Mory and Anta, whose daydreams blend fantasy and reality in postcolonial Senegal, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s recreation hoped for a diasporic effect, suggesting they, too, are runaways.
In one scene, Anta and Mory pull a heist; they steal a wealthy gay man’s car, nabbing some of his clothes, too (he calls the police and flirts with the investigator). The joyride takes place on an empty road, heading into town. Mory emerges, naked, on top of the car, and begins a hostile-yet-not-angry speech. In it, Mory declares victory over all his foes, real or not, describing in detail how he wrestled his way to the top. Intercutting the sequence are shots of children running alongside the car. But the camera reveals that these children are a fantasy, Mory’s imagined audience. The result is that the scene is an astonishingly great act of myth-making.
(courtesy of The Criterion Collection)
The stolen car, painted in red, white, and blue, provides Mambèty perhaps his most daring image of rebellion, an image that not only re-contextualizes the African story-telling tradition of Griot storytelling in postcolonial France but also reminds the audience of an American and British colonial past. Mory’s naked oration mixes personal fantasy with colonial history, an appropriation of oppressive symbolism that now provides, at least for a moment, the feeling of freedom, pre-Oedipal plenitude, where anything and everything is possible.
Mory’s griot, though certainly not a strictly traditional griot performance, nevertheless syncretizes Senegal tradition with a then-contemporary postcolonial subject’s desires—a representation of what scholars David Murphy and Patrick Williams call in African postcolonial cinema the “griauter”, a hybridization of the African (griot) and Western (auteur) storyteller. As the film intercuts the car sequence with the children sequence, Mory’s imagined audience, he creates a mythos of victory—of conquering through wrestling—with masculine self-assurance. It’s a distinctly African sequence, transformed by both histories of European colonialism and technology. Mambèty’s filmic equivalent brings African tradition to European film and European film to African tradition.
Mambèty’s daring in this scene reveals the importance of that kind of brazen, naked freedom that many Americans are afraid of, let alone reflected back at them onscreen. Mambety’s hybrid style is, on its face, typical of the categorizations applied to African filmmakers whose styles combine the West with the Global South. Yet his execution and craftsmanship, his awareness of both African and European filmmaking styles, is nevertheless unique.
To be sure, he never makes overt political statements, unlike his contemporaries. For the viewer, however, Mambety’s understanding of the postcolonial situation, its politics and cultural impact, is deeply intuitive and instinctual. Now, at least, we can all appreciate Mambèty’s cheekiness.