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Why Touki Bouki Is The Greatest Africa Ever Filmed

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When it came out in 1973, Touki Bouki was panned by the Senegalese public and press. Yet 45 years on, it deserves to be regarded as one of Africa’s finest films, argues Djia Mambu.

By Djia Mambu
5 November 2018
Forty-five years after its release, Touki Bouki (1973) is considered a revolutionary work both in its futuristic themes and its innovative style. And 20 years after the death of the Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, the visionary film-maker continues to influence new generations.

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Yet that wasn’t the initial reaction. “When Touki Bouki was released in 1973, it was panned by the Senegalese public and press; audiences did not understand it,” wrote the journalist Aboubacar Demba Cissokho. “Today Djibril Diop Mambéty’s film has become cult viewing and is a seminal reference in cinema.” This sums up, to my mind, the genuine avant-garde impact of this masterpiece – which was only re-circulated in 2008, when it was digitally restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. The US director called Touki Bouki “a cinematic poem made with a raw, wild energy”.

Presented at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, Touki Bouki – Wolof for “The Journey of the Hyena” – won the international critics’ award, going on to win the FIPRESCI Prize at the Moscow Film Festival in the same year. At the time this was already a major feat for an African film, especially given the continent’s low cinematic output back then: Africa has the youngest film history, born essentially in the post-independence world. Yet the film’s continued impact is just as striking: it ranked 52 in Empire magazine’s 2010 list of the 100 greatest films ever made – while in 2018, a jury of 15 film critics at the Tarifa-Tangier African Film Festival in Spain named it the best African film ever made. Beyoncé and Jay-Z paid homage to it in the promotional campaign for their 2018 On the Run II tour – drawing some criticism of appropriation. And now, Touki Bouki is the only African film to appear in BBC Culture’s list of the 100 greatest ever foreign-language films: it stands in 62nd place.

Independent spirit

The film itself emanates the disenchantment felt during the post-independence period and it was this theme that pushed it into the spotlight of cinematic history. Mory and Anta, a non-conformist young couple fed up of their homeland, try to escape to Europe. Ever ready to leave his charges, Mory, a cattle herder, heads into the capital on his moped. Having dreamt up the masterplan, he devises various schemes to make it work – fraud, theft, prostitution. A streetwise student at Dakar University, Anta has the smarts to put Mory’s plans into action. Like a Bonnie-and-Clyde duo, they zip like outlaws through the streets of Dakar on Mory’s moped, its handlebars emblazoned with zebu horns, desperately seeking some way out of the city. Finally, when Anta’s lover and accomplice abandons her at the ferry, she ends up travelling to France alone.

While Mambéty continued the story 20 years later in Hyènes (1992), ironically the actors who played his characters shared the same fate as Mory and Anta in Touki Bouki. Marème Niang (Anta) moved and settled in the west, and Magaye Niang (Mory) went back to herding zebu in Dakar. We see this in a documentary, Mille Soleils (2013), directed by Mati Diop, Mambéty’s niece, and the daughter of his musician brother Wasis Diop who helped to produce Mambety’s films.

Mambéty brought poetry, dream and fantasy to African cinema – Dia Thierno Ibrahima

On its release in 1973, Touki Bouki represented a departure from the linear narrative techniques of African film-making. Its anarchic narrative, bold staging, frenetic editing and sound design – an integral part of its writing – surprised many and earned Mambéty plaudits as the most talented and audacious film-maker of his time. “A man of contrasts, a man of brilliance; Mambéty brought poetry, dream and fantasy to African cinema,” wrote Barry Saïdou Alceny, journalist and critic of Burkinabe cinema, in 2009. The editor-in-chief of Africiné/Images Francophones, Dia Thierno Ibrahima, contrasted Mambéty with Ousmane Sembène, another Senegalese director and the so-called “father of African film”. Ibrahima argued that “a deep vein of realism ran through Sembène’s work, like Louis Lumière, whereas Mambéty was like Méliès: poetic, magic and realist.”

Wall of sound

Audio is crucial throughout. It is as if the sound was edited first and the images interwoven afterwards. Every voice and noise has its places, from the peuhl flute as the herds arrive to be slaughtered in the abattoir, to Joséphine Baker’s repetitive “Paris Paris Paris, sur terre ce petit coin de paradis” (Paris, Paris, Paris, this haven of heaven on earth) every time Mory starts his moped. “In the way sound is used as the foundation for editing, Touki Bouki is a profoundly experimental work, both in form and content. It is a key work, not only in Senegalese cinema but also in cinema, full stop,” Senegalese film-maker Rama Thiaw tells me.

Furthermore, the film’s final sequence closes in exactly the same way as the first, with Mory herding his zebus while, during the film, scenes follow on disconnected from time and space, creating a general feeling of discomfort. Touki Bouki can be difficult to understand when first viewed – it has been heralded as the first African avant-garde film. “Mambéty is a film-maker with a special intimate lunatic vision… a surrealist aesthetic,” observed Nar Sene, the novelist and Senegalese actor, in his 2001 biography Djibril Diop Mambéty, La Caméra au bout… du nez.

Nobody could film Dakar better than him… He was its painter – Djib Diédhiou

The film’s meaning is opaque unless we try to understand its author, who died 20 years ago. In his teen years, Mambéty was influenced by Ya Dikone, an icon of resistance and rebellion to Senegalese youth in the past. A kind of Robin Hood, rebel, resistant and defender of the poorest, he challenged the local authorities and denounced social injustices. Thanks to Ya Dikone, Mambéty watched his first western and became the film-maker of the little people, those forsaken by Senegalese society. All of his films were set in a familiar environment that he knew only too well: Colobane, the deprived neighbourhood where he grew up. “Nobody could film Dakar better than him. He had a special relationship to the capital. He was its painter,” wrote Djib Diédhiou in 2008.

Touki Bouki was Mambéty’s third film and first feature; in the course of his life, he produced only seven films. Initially drawn to the theatre, he took up the camera for Badou Boy in 1965 and thereafter never left its main protagonist’s perspective and the critique of the established order it offered. “Touki Bouki is also a bold film in the way that it subverts the tropes of the oral tradition, at a time when many of the continent’s filmmakers preferred to re-evaluate it,” wrote Sada Niang in Djibril Diop Mambéty, un Cinéaste à Contre-courant.

Fatou Kine Sene, Chair of the Senegalese Cinema Critics Association, tells me: “Touki Bouki is also a metaphor for Africa, especially in the abattoir scene where the animal symbolises Africa’s struggle to escape the butchers’ grasp.”

Often considered as the African Godard (they never actually met), Djibril Diop Mambéty stood out from his peers, who were influenced by Russian and French cinema, through his appeal to the Italian Neo-realism of Visconti and Pasolini. According to Olivier Barlet, founder of Africultures, “Mambéty’s magical films juggle derision and allegory… weaving burlesque characters into hyperbolic images, finding their unity in a cyclical and repetitive montage and a music that links the shots together in true symphony.”

Migrating muse

Today, thousands of young Africans are caught in a wave of relentless emigration in pursuit of a dream of a better life in the west, even if it means risking their lives. Mambéty’s work, created 45 years ago, is still as relevant as ever. With ruling-class incompetence and the disdain of the rich minorities, African youth today are as disillusioned as Anta and Mory in the early 1970s. They are the hyenas of today. Many, like Mory, refuse to leave the continent.

Djibril Diop Mambéty succumbed to illness in July 1998; at his death, journalists, friends, colleagues and cinema professionals paid tribute to this revolutionary of African cinema. Ten years later in 2008, their tributes focused on Mambéty’s posthumous influence on ensuing generations. Today, 20 years on, Touki Bouki is still the seminal reference of African cinema. As the Mauritanian film-maker Abderrahmane Sissako tells me, “Touki Bouki is the one African movie that will survive the test of time and forever be relevant. It is a unique film, as unique as Mambéty himself.”

A tribute book to the filmmaker’s work will be published imminently: Mambéty ou le voyage de la hyène (“Mambéty o il viaggio della iena”, in Italian) edited by Simona Cella and Cinzia Quadrati, in collaboration with Alessandra Speciale and prefaced by Martin Scorsese.

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