Thursday, May 15, 2014

Djibril Diop Mambéty's "Touki Bouki"

Every Wednesday, Hibbleton Gallery hosts a movie night.  The films are usually selected by my friend, the award-winning documentary filmmaker Steve Elkins.  Each month has a kind of theme, and the general theme of this month is "International Cinema" -- particularly the cinema of developing countries that don't really have an established film industry.  Last night, we watched the film "Touki Bouki" directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty, a self-taught filmmaker from Senegal who made this masterpiece when he was 28 years old.  The film, which was recently restored by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation, was only released in America in the past few months. Thus, our screening was probably one of the first North American screenings of Touki Bouki ever.  Here's how Steve describes the film:

"Touki Bouki" (The Hyena's Journey) is not only one of the great treasures of Senegalese cinema; it developed its own wildly inventive aesthetic language that still challenges established norms and possibilities of cinematic communication. Equal parts radical road movie (Senegal's "Pierrot Le Fou"?) and avant-garde orgasm, the film is a poetically idiosyncratic perspective on both traditional Senegalese life and the seismic paradigm shifts (i.e. mindfucks) taking place within post-colonial Africa. Don't miss this rare gem, made by a self-taught 28 year-old visionary, which demonstrates why, according to its director, "It is good for the future of cinema that Africa exists."  

Touki Bouki is an example of "post-colonial" cinema.  In the past few centuries, the African continemt was colonized and exploited for resources by major European powers like England, France, and Portugal.  Senegal was a French colony which only achieved its independence in 1960.  Like many African nations, which have very recenrtly liberated themselves from colonialism, Senegal is a country still suffering the trauma of exploitation and cultural imperialism.

The film is a poetic meditation on what it means to escape the spectre of colonialsm and, to paraphrase Nelson Mandela, become the captain of your fate.  The main charaters are a young couple named Mory and Anta, who set off on on a motorcycle (with a cow skull on the handlebars) with dreams of leaving for Paris.  They steal money from a wrestling match in honor of French general/president Charles de Gaulle, and clothing and a car from a wealthy Senegalese dandy, and buy tickets to sail for Paris.  Their journey through the shantytowns, slums, and modern highrises of Dakar (the capital of Senegal) reminded me of a combination of Easy Rider and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. 

The style of the film is a hybrid of kinetic French New Wave camera work, dream-like African landscapes, and black comedy.  The sound of the film is also a mash-up of traditinal Senegalese music and drums, French music, and sounds of nature and city life.  The visuals and the sounds reflect a society that has, through decades of colonialism, become a hybrid culture, mixing French and African elements. 

All of these elements contribute to the protagonists' struggle for identity in this fragmented, hybridized society.  They dream of escape, yet the film poses the haunting questions, "Can we escape our past?  How can we move forward after so much bad has happened?"  There are no easy answers to these questions, and the film does not provide us with neat solutions.  Instead, it does what good cinema has always done--plunge us into the complex struggle of what it means to be a human being in a complex world.  To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, it aims to "Shine a light on our darkness."  The world, particularly the more affluent western world, needs to see more films like this, if only to recontexztualize our comfortable view of ourselves and our place on this globe. 


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