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  • Writer's pictureMatteo Pascale

Touki Bouki: Mambety and the Hyena’s Journey through Post-Colonial Senegal

Touki Bouki directed by Djibril Diop Mambety is an important film from Africa that explores the impact of modernity and post-colonialism in Senegal and beyond. Touki Bouki was Djibril Diop Mambety's first feature-length film completed when he was 28 years of age. Prior to that, Djibril Diop Mambety directed only two short films. Although he had no formal training in filmmaking. Before directing Touki Bouki by Djibril Diop Mambety notoriety for directing shorts received Film Awards. So, the quality of his works has left him with legendary status in the international film community and his films are worth reviewing and considering.

Djibril Diop Mambety was making his films in post-colonial Africa, and in all his films, including Touki Bouki, he explores the continuing connection between newly independent Senegal and post-colonial France. Modernism and post-colonial themes are prevalent in Touki Bouki. As Gerakiti writes in Daily Art Magazine, postwar modernism brought in a new way of creating film, where the narration is abolished, and the film turned toward issues or psychological problems. Modernism in postwar films exhibits aesthetic freedom, and “a more artistic and less standardized cinema.” (Gerakiti) These elements are a hallmark of Touki Bouki which has a dream-like quality that blurs what is real and what is imagined. It is important to understand that Touki Bouki translates to the Hyena’s Journey and that in West Africa, a hyena represents evil, trickery, and sorcery. According to Frembgen, in The Magicality of Hyena, hyenas are “considered to be sly… and brutish.” (Frembgen) The name of the film sets up the expectation for the main characters to be non-conformists, unpredictable and unsavory.

Djibril Diop Mambety's choice to open Touki Bouki with the scene of cattle begin brought to slaughter, appears to be a metaphor for the way, the French colonized Africa and Senegal in particular. This opening scene was very disturbing and memorable, so Djibril Diop Mambety chose to open with that scene. This scene is something that cannot be unseen, because of how grizzly it is. At first, it is unclear why this scene was chosen, but later it seems that Mory, the main character is a cattle rancher a boy who later moves to Dakar. The film explores rural indigenous tribal African culture within Senegal’s Colobane and the rest is set in urban Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Concerned with looking at everyday life, perception, time, and the kaleidoscopic and fractured experience of urban space. Mambety’s cinematic techniques of close-up, panning, flashbacks, and montage played a major role in shaping experimental this work. Djibril Diop Mambety's editing style moves the story between different characters' thoughts and dreams, how it weaves different perceptions of colonial French life, and how people in that society are otherized by French influence. This film experiments with exposing the experience of modernity and post-colonial French influence.

One interesting aspect of the film, Touki Bouki, is the use of the natural world found in the village of the Colobane. The film uses Senegal's extreme natural beauty and striking colors as a third character in the film. The Villagers of Colobane are having back-and-forth conversations layered with ambient music telling a story and texture to the world that is inhabited within Touki Bouki. This technique was used before in neorealism to represent the experience of the people who live in the society being filmed. In Touki Bouki the sun explodes on the sea, and mountain, and as a backdrop can make the individual characters seem small and insignificant. Their lives unfold in ways that must have been going on for centuries. They are part of the village life that unfolds connected to the natural world. As Gabara writes in ‘A Poetics of Refusals’: Neorealism from Italy to Africa, “Against these foreign representations of Africa, filmmakers desired to create authentic images of a previously hidden regional and national reality.” Mambety reveals his vision of Senegal and its people through the beauty and difficulty of life in his untamed, surreal film that explodes with satire, dreams, and uneven storytelling.

The editing is experimental in its use of jump cuts creating a disjointed experience in the narration. It tells the story of Mory and Anta's unconventional relationship and desire to escape society. The film is a story that narrates two people's relationship with each other, their place of origin, and how they will escape or become stuck in their world. Mambety's inventive use of soundscape with Touki Bouki often toys with indigenous African tribal music, that is heavy with sound filters and audio distortion tactics. This makes the soundscape what it is, haunting, and adds to create an exciting story that is unpredictable and satisfying with all these elements coming together. All this in mind, Mambety adds layers of mystery to this fantastical experimental film that uses unusual storytelling, characters, film editing, music, and soundscape to create an exciting story with all these elements coming together. The editing and soundscape within Touki Bouki's use of indigenous music worked together to create a film that shows the brutality of colonialism. It was a great film and had so many layers to it.

Living in Post-colonial Africa, the shadow of France hangs over every aspect of life. Many sources, including Cordova in an article in Calliope Arts Journal have described this period of living through post-colonial Africa as causing “sour optimism.” The main characters of the film Mory and Anta are in search of their identities. They are sick of living in a society that lacks opportunity, resources, and upward growth. Their experiences of living in Senegal are filled with constant interactions filled with con artists and various petty criminals, as well as extremely violent scenes. Mory and Anta are in search of their lives and decide to get away and escape to Paris, France. The two of them are choosing to take on this journey for many reasons that can be described as upward mobility. One interpretation can include the shots of the Atlantic Ocean, which represent the natural beauty and what cannot be controlled. Mory and Anta’s lives are extremely unpredictable and chaotic.

The surreal nature in many scenes within Touki Bouki explores ancient African traditions. Various magical rituals were still popular during colonialism and post-colonial periods. They were often labeled as voodoo or witch doctoring. Djibril Diop Mambety plays with these tropes in various short and small snake scenes. The two most prominent scenes that fit this motif are first when Anta went to visit her aunt that was a willful group of individuals that sacrificed to goat. It's unclear if the goat sacrifice was for an animal ritual sacrifice or a meal. It is shot in a surreal manner, blurring the lines between dreamlike and hallucination. The second most prominent time within Touki Bouki is the scene where a woman is being serviced by a bellhop carrying her very large and heavy suitcase. The bellhop by mistake drops the suitcase, that belongs to the woman being serviced, only to be absolutely horrified that the suitcase contains the skeleton of a human. This scene in Touki Bouki seems like a complete no sequitur to the story. Whatever the meaning behind the skeleton in the woman's suitcase, it's not easy to know firsthand what it represents.

One of the more memorable scenes in the film is when Mory is imagining himself as a newly elected dictator and displaying his body to the world naked. One can infer that Mory’s public nudity while imagining himself as a fresh face dictator is satirizing the rising politicians and dictators across Africa as being the emperors with no clothes. All this parading around by Mory is just a way to say that Senegal emulates a colonial occupation by France in its independence. Yet the very idea that Mory has of wanting to move to Paris, France is just the other side of the same coin. The idea Mory has of wanting to get away from Senegal, by transforming his life and starting a new one in Paris, France is an act of post-colonial immigration. One can argue that this is colonial Stockholm syndrome.

Mory and Anta try to create a life together, but they seem very disconnected. They do not seem affectionate with one another. The couple is just riding around together, finding experiences that they barely escape from and into another strange situation immediately. They cheat their way to having tickets for a steamship to France, and then at the last minute, Mory runs away, and Anta is left on the boat alone. She leaves by herself and sets sail for France. Mory is seen looking out over the sea, alone. He seems content to have this lifestyle of simple pleasures. This is the opposite of the immigration experience that demands so much from the people escaping their homeland. Touki Bouki is full of surprising twists to the end, leaving a sense of modern life’s surreal journey.

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