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By the time he died in 1998 at age 53, Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety had completed only two feature films and three shorts in a career that spanned three decades. But along with Ousmane Sembene, Mambety is considered one of the founding fathers of Senegal's emerging national cinema, and his first feature, Touki Bouki (1973), is his masterpiece.
In Touki Bouki (which means "Journey of the Hyena" in the Wolof language of Senegal) lovers Mory, a cattle herder, and Anta, a student, ride around on Mory's motorbike which is customized with an ox's skull and horns on the front, longing to escape Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and go to France. The soundtrack plays "Paris, Paris," sung by Josephine Baker, the jaunty song symbolizing their idealized goal. They come up with various schemes to get the money to take a ship to Europe, and finally board the ship, but in the end only one of them goes.
Made on a $30,000 budget from Mambety's own autobiographical script, Touki Bouki shows the influence of the French New Wave, yet is completely original. It's layered with sounds and music, fantasy and stark reality, and filled with jump-cuts, jittery camera angles, poetic images and color. Critics have admiringly described the film's style as surrealist or avant-garde. They say it's one of the first examples of "hybridization," the combination of Western cinema technique with African storytelling traditions. But Mambety had a more straightforward explanation for the film's unique style. "It's the way I dream," he said in an interview. "One must have a mad belief that anything is possible....Cinema must be reinvented each time, and whoever ventures into cinema must also share in its reinvention." He also compared himself to a griot, an African storyteller and transmitter of the oral tradition. "The word griot...is the word for what I do and the role that the filmmaker has in society...the griot is a messenger of one's time, a visionary and the creator of the future." Touki Bouki won awards in 1973 at the Cannes Film Festival and the Moscow International Film Festival.
The character of Mory is based on Mambety himself. The son of a Muslim cleric, Mambety graduated from acting school and was a stage actor before turning to film. He made two short films that explored elements of contemporary Senegalese society before making Touki Bouki. Despite the film's international acclaim, he did not direct another feature for almost twenty years, making only one short during that period, in 1989. His second and final feature, Hyenas (1992), based on Friedrich Durrenmatt's play, The Visit, was conceived as a sequel of sorts to Touki Bouki, and was planned as the second part of a trilogy about power and greed. Like The Visit, Hyenas is about an enormously wealthy woman who returns from abroad to the village of her youth to seek vengeance on the man who betrayed her. Mambety said that although they have different names, the characters of the rich woman and her former lover are Anta and Mory twenty years later.
"When I begin to dream of other places, to be obsessed by them to the point of becoming a stranger in my own country like Mory and Anta in Touki Bouki, my natural instinct is to refuse the temptation. That is what has set the course of my life," Mambety told an interviewer. However, unlike Mory, he did go to France, and spent many years longing to return to Senegal. "I have always found it sad to be away from home," he said.
Mambety died of lung cancer in Paris in 1998. Ten years later, the World Cinema Foundation, an organization established by Martin Scorsese to preserve neglected films from around the world, selected Touki Bouki as one of the films to be restored and preserved. At the time, Malian director and Mambety contemporary Souleymane Cisse (a WCF Filmmakers Council member) wrote, "The story of Touki Bouki goes back centuries: men have always set out for new lands where they believe time never stops... Djibril left his country with the dream of finding success and solace in Europe...While his dream fell apart little by little Djibril found he was unable to leave 'Europe,' his host country. That was when returning to Africa became the real dream for him. Ending his days in Africa was a dream he would never fulfill."
Mambety's niece Mati Diop (daughter of Mambety's brother, jazz musician Wasis Diop) is an actress and filmmaker. In July of 2013, her documentary, Mille Soleils (A Thousand Suns) premiered at the Marseilles International Cinema and Documentary Festival in France. The film traces the history of Touki Bouki, finds out what happened to the two stars, and explores how Senegal has evolved in the 40 years since Touki Bouki made history as one of the seminal films of the new African cinema.
Director: Djibril Diop Mambety
Screenplay: Djibril Diop Mambety
Cinematography: Pap Samba Sow
Editor: Siro Asteni, Emma Meneti
Art Direction: Aziz Diop Mambety
Music: "Paris, Paris" sung by Josephine Baker
Principal Cast: Magaye Niang (Mory), Mareme Niang (Anta), Aminata Fall (Aunt Oumy), Ousseynou Diop (Charlie)
by Margarita Landazuri