TOUKI BOUKI/THE JOURNEY OF THE HYENA (1973, Senegal, 86 min.),

directed by Djibril Diop Mambety. In Wolof with English subtitles.

"Paris, Paris, Paris!" sings Josephine Baker on a scratchy recording that we hear a number of times on Touki Bouki's soundtrack. "You're a kind of Paradise on Earth!"

How many young Africans have dreamed of leaving their backwater shantytowns to make their fortunes in the City of Lights? We could substitute "London" for Paris, or "New York," "Miami," or "L.A."; each would work equally well. These cities have served as magnets for generations of hungry dreamers willing to do almost anything to gain access to a mythical land of opportunity, of modernity.

Touki Bouki tells a familiar, universal story--a pair of lovers who will do just about anything to escape the slums of Dakar. Mory, the young man, has come to Dakar searching for a better life than he had as a village shepherd. He cruises around Dakar on his noisy motorcyle whose handlebars are adorned with a zebu's skull and horns and whose seat bears what looks like a traditional fetish of some sort. Dakar is obviously a disappointment to him, and he concludes that his journey needs to be taken further; he will need to leave the continent entirely, cross over the sea to Europe.

Mory seduces Anta, a young university student, with his schemes to raise money to book passage to France. At first, things don't go too smoothly. Together they try to steal the gate-money at a wrestling contest, only to discover that they have stolen a fetish by mistake. Mory finally resorts to hustling and robbing a gay man named Charlie. Dressed in Charlie's fancy clothes and riding in his car (which looks like a mobile American flag), Mory makes his way in a surreal ticker-tape parade down the streets of Dakar, with Anta beside him, to the docks and the boat that will take them to Paris. Yet something continues to hold him back, to prevent his escape.

Djibril Diop Mambety made Touki Bouki, based on his own story and script, with a budget of $30,000 (obtained in part from the Senegalese government) and a group of nonprofessional actors. It was edited in Rome and Paris and won a number of awards in Europe, including the Special Jury's Award at the Moscow Film Festival and was chosen as part of the Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.

Stylistically, Touki Bouki has an avant-garde quality that links it to other films of the early Seventies (it makes me think of Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baaadasss Song). In any case, it is unlike most of the films we've seen from Africa. Rather than use a simple, straightforward chronological narrative, it includes scenes that are deliberately disturbing and confusing (e.g., animals being slaughtered, a wild child who lives in a baobab tree) and leaves it to us to make sense of them. Its editing style is frequently experimental in style: it will cut between two apparently unrelated events and allow us to interpret the connection, or it will repeat the same shots or edit a scene out of sequence. Touki Bouki also uses its soundtrack to disrupt the illusion of realism, distancing us from the story and causing us to ponder its meaning even as we watch it.

The film's title--Journey of the Hyena--points to Mory as a marginal scavenger, both ludicrous and destructive. It is up to the audience to decide just what kind of journey Mory has undertaken, and where it will wind up.

Francoise Pfaff provides the following penetrating commentary on Touki Bouki:

Although it does not follow the clear linear progression of African storytelling, Touki Bouki includes thematic elements commonly found in African tales. Mory is the trickster type frequently described in the oral tradition, which portrays as well a number of protagonists leaving their village to venture in an unknown land. Like a folk hero, Mory has to overcome obstacles and triumph over adversity. In so doing, he performs a rite of passage from tradition to modernity, and from adolescence to adulthood. His odyssey is an initiatory rite resulting in new knowledge. . . . Here Touki Bouki grows into both a morality and a dilemma tale. The moral of Mory's story suggests that exile is but another form of alienation. Mory's destiny is left to the viewer's imagination, and as such Mambety's plot calls to mind the open-endedness of African dilemma tales. As in African oral stories, and despite the director's opposition to outward message films, Touki Bouki espouses a didactic function: Mory's quest for a dream is indeed a self-searching journey. (Twenty-Five Black African Filmmakers, 1988)

 

Pierre Haffner writes in Cinemaction-Tricontinental (1982):

Touki Bouki is . . . a film about youth, dreams, love, alienation, justice and fears. . . . . It is an extremely complex motion picture which to this day probably stands as the most fascinating work of Black African cinema. . . . Disconcerting . . . provocative, even insolent and blasphemous yet compassionate and generous, Touki Bouki appears as the most profound incursion into the psyche of a Senegalese youth traumatized by colonization and urban aggressions. (quoted by Pfaff in Twenty-Five Black African Filmmakers, 1988)

After a long hiatus from filmmaking, Djibril Diop Mambety has recently completed a new film--titled Hyenas.

Notes by Michael Dembrow

 

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