Touki Bouki, hailed by Scorsese and appropriated by Beyoncé, is a highlight among African films at Cannes
Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena), directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty, was shown at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the International Federation of Film Critics Prize.
This week, let’s talk about films from Africa. How many are you able to name, off the top of your head? I plead guilty, too. I’ve heard of the names -- say, Ousmane Sembène (“the father of African cinema”) -- but the films themselves are hard to come by. That’s where festivals help. Last year, at Cannes, I saw Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki (Friend). The English-Swahili drama, which played in the Un Certain Regard section, was the first film from Kenya to make it to the festival’s line-up (This Juliet and Juliet story was probably also the first LGBTQI film from the continent). Some three decades earlier, in 1987, Souleymane Cissé from Mali became the first Black African filmmaker with a film in the Competition section. His Yeelen (Brightness) won the Jury Prize, and he became the first African filmmaker to win an award at Cannes.
But all this is trivia. What about cinema? For that, let’s look at the Senegalese drama, Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena), directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty. It was shown at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the International Federation of Film Critics Prize. Touki Bouki, generally known as the first African avant-garde film, has been in the news for a while, thanks to a couple of American celebrities. The first is Martin Scorsese, who’s the Founder and Chair of The Film Foundation, which is dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history. Under its aegis, Touki Bouki was restored in 2008 (Scorsese called it “a cinematic poem made with a raw, wild energy”). Souleymane Cissé, who was moved immeasurably by the restoration of this formerly little-seen film, exclaimed, “What a pleasure and what an achievement for Martin Scorsese’s Foundation to give Djibril Diop Mambéty a second life. To all those who support cinema: Bravo!”
The second American celebrity is actually a couple: Beyoncé and Jay-Z used an iconic image from Touki Bouki to promote their 2018 On the Run II tour, and a small controversy followed. Mambéty’s niece, the actor and filmmaker Mati Diop, was quoted in The Guardian that she was a little troubled about the appropriation of African cinema by these megawatt pop stars, whose tour itinerary didn’t have the name of a single African country. “It looks like it’s an art director who brought them the image, and no one has been concerned about what artistic and political story is behind it,” she told Libération. “It is depressing and fascinating at the same time, the unbearable lightness of the mainstream.” But let’s look at the bright side. The film snuck into the news again, 45 years after it was made.
The “plot” isn’t much. Touki Bouki revolves around Mory, a young cowherd, and his girlfriend Anta, a student revolutionary. They have one dream: to leave behind the poverty of their homes in the Senegalese capital of Dakar and escape to Paris. These two extremes – Dakar and Paris – are contrasted in various ways, throughout. Take the soundtrack. On the one hand, there’s the “raw” local music, with serrated flute passages, seemingly discordant drums, and raucous vocal chants. On the other, there’s Josephine Baker, backed by a butter-smooth orchestra and singing about the glories of the French capital, in 'Paris, Paris, Paris'. Note the choice of singer. It’s not, say, Édith Piaf, a French-born (and white) French singer. Josephine Baker’s story is what Mory and Anta dream of. Baker was black, she couldn’t “stand America” (she said so in an interview) and she fled to Paris, where she became a celebrity.
Touki Bouki is a film whose “meaning” comes from artistic choices like these, and from the cross-cutting: 'Paris, Paris, Paris' plays over the wild rural landscape in the outskirts of Dakar. As we get to the line "C’est sur la terre un coin de paradis" (A little piece of heaven on earth), the camera gazes at the dry-brown ground, the ash-coloured trees. Sound and visual, dream and reality, combine in one perfectly distilled moment. Another demonstration of the contrast between what Mory thinks Paris is and what it really is comes from a stretch involving Parisians who briefly made Dakar their home. One of them says, “We never left Dakar. What is there in Senegal? Barren. Intellectually as well… And what would we buy here? Masks? African art is a joke made up by journalists in need of copy...” If this Frenchman is so dismissive of the Senegalese while in their country, how will he treat Mory and Anta in his?
A large part of Touki Bouki is about Mory and Anta’s attempts to finance their trip through thievery. But even as they try to break free, Mory feels the pull of his roots. This conflict is evident right from the beginning. The opening image is soothing, pastoral: a young boy (Mory himself?) is seen with a herd of cows. But it cuts to an abattoir, where a cow is slaughtered in the most barbaric manner. Souleymane Cissé called Touki Bouki “a prophetic film. Its portrayal of 1973 Senegalese society is not too different from today’s reality. Hundreds of young Africans die every day at the Strait of Gibraltar trying to reach Europe (Melilla and Ceuta).” To be sure, Mory and Anta want out only because they want more -- it’s a matter of choice rather than necessity. Still, this film, made at a time the phrase “migrant crisis” was probably unheard of, makes us see what it’s like to feel like you don’t belong at home, and you’re not going to belong in the world beyond, either.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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