Touki Bouki: Film Review

by Ralph Dumain

Djibril Diop Mambety's Touki Bouki is hardly on a par with his later masterpiece Hyenas, though there are similarities. There are also thematic similarities to other African films, i.e. the struggle between tradition and modernity, the tedium of traditional rural life vs. the big bad city, and in this case the allure of the metropole, Paris. The biggest difference is that Mambety has a real visual style and is much more modern in his presentation than the sometimes tedious African films of this sort. There also is something more symbolic going on, though nothing that is far beyond our comprehension. The symbolism of cattle, for example, is the most prominent one.

The film dates back to 1973, and so the modern western attire featured is bell bottoms, but far more colorful ones than any we ever saw here in the USA. The main character is disrespectful of traditions, and the women cuss him out for his lack of respect. Instead of riding a steer to town, he rides around on a motorcycle with a steer's horns attached to the handlebars. His ambition is to get himself and his girl friend onto an ocean liner bound for Gay Paree. (Josephine Baker is part of the soundtrack.) Homosexuality is also a part of the film, surprisingly enough. I don't know whether this carries a negative symbolic valence or not. Anyway, the lead character agrees to let this rich fat African guy bugger him in exchange for material possessions, but the protagonist double-crosses him and robs him blind. The girl friend is his accomplice. I guess I'd best not spoil it for potential viewers, so I won't reveal what ultimately happens when they board the ocean liner.

Another familiar Mambety theme: the power of money. When boyfriend returns to the village in stolen luxury, the same woman who used to chase him with a knife now sings his praises, performing traditional song and dance. This is very reminiscent of Hyenas.

In sum, this is a very modern African film, considering the standards of the genre, especially back then. It is obvious and oft-stated that Mambety criticizes the corrupting influences of the modern world where money reigns over all. This in itself is not a theme that moves me. Much more impressive is that, whether consciously or not, Mambety effectively trashes traditional beliefs and customs just as surely as he trashes modern capitalism, and this is what makes Hyenas profound.

(18 January 1999, edited & uploaded 11 September 2000)

©1999, 2000 Ralph Dumain

Hyenas by Djibril Diop Mambety
reviewed by Ralph Dumain

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Uploaded 11 September 2000

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