By Robert Sklar in the May-June 2000 Issue
Long gaps in the careers of major directors seem one of film history’s saddest wastes. Manoel de Oliveira and Abraham Polonsky went 21 years without making a feature, the former during Portugal’s Salazar dictatorship, the latter because of Hollywood’s blacklist. Philosophical and private motives apparently led to Terrence Malick’s more recent 20-year hiatus. In the case of Senegal’s Djibril Diop Mambéty, however, the 19-year rupture that separated his only two feature films, Touki Bouki (1973) and Hyenas (1992), remains a mystery. Yet the clues to its solution may be all too ample in his remarkable, truncated life as a filmmaker.
Mambéty died of lung cancer in a Paris hospital in 1998, before his last film, The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun / La petite vendeuse de soleil (1999), had been released. He was 53. His filmmaking falls inevitably into two periods, the Before and the After of the lengthy silence, that are closely linked by theme while radically separated by style. He launched his career in the wild cinematic and social upheavals of the late ’60s and restored it in the illusory stability of the early ’90s “New World Order,” with values and vision hardly altered over the intervening years.
His training was as a stage actor. Working with the national theater in Dakar in his early twenties, he was thrown out for lack of discipline, and he thought to try his hand at filmmaking. The natural route for aspiring African filmmakers at that time led to VGIK, the Moscow film school. Mambéty’s fellow Senegalese, Ousmane Sembène, although a generation older, had gone there in the early ’60s, switching from fiction to film, and had already directed Black Girl / La noire de… (1966) and Mandabi / The Money Order (1968). Souleymane Cissé from Mali, closer in age, was just then finishing his film studies in Moscow. But Mambéty was ideological in a different way—one might say he was drawn to small-a anarchism rather than capital-C Communism. African critics say that Mambéty’s early films appear different to African eyes than they do to western spectators. They value his originality—the playfulness, the meandering stories and temporal leaps, the off-kilter images—in the framework of African filmmaking, as distinct from, for example, Sembène’s Moscow-influenced straight-ahead social-realist narratives. To these western eyes, Mambéty’s early work seems both highly contemporary to its own era of world film and also deeply connected to past cinematic traditions. Learning as he filmed, he took his camera into the streets and especially into the poor shantytown neighborhoods of Dakar. The title of his first short, City of Contrasts / Contras’ City (1969), proclaims its affinity with the “city symphonies” of the late silent era. All three of his films from this period—the 65-minute picaresque Badou Boy (1970) and Touki Bouki as well—could be linked under a rubric borrowed from Jean Vigo’s contribution to the genre: “À propos de Dakar.” As in Vigo’s À propos de Nice, Mambéty’s surreal humor both surpasses and enhances his serious purpose.
Touki Bouki (“The Hyena’s Journey”) falls conveniently into the “outlaw couple on the run” genre so popular in the anti-establishment atmosphere of post-1968, but its differences from the genre norm are more significant than its similarities. Typically, the renegade lovers films posit a private sphere of fulfilled, or perhaps frustrated, felicity, a cocoon of happiness that a cruel, uncomprehending world insists on crushing. For Touki Bouki’s couple, Mory and Anta, there’s no such place. Dakar offers them no haven, and as they’re drawn in the film, they wouldn’t know what to do with a private sphere if someone deeded it to them. Their goal is France and to get there no petty crime is beneath them. But Mory and Anta are at home nowhere, least of all within themselves or with each other, and neither Senegal nor France is capable of offering them one.
The film destroys the possibility of illusion in its opening sequence. Under the credits, a boy drives cattle to market. In a slaughterhouse, the cattle are dragged to the killing floor. An artery is severed. Lifeblood gushes out. The cattle-driving youth seems to have been Mory, who reappears in hip mode on a motorbike with a steer’s skull perched on the handlebar. That skull is a constant memento mori throughout the film. After their wild adventures, the couple gains the resources to embark for France by ship, but Mory runs away at the last minute to avoid capture. His escape is intercut with images from the slaughterhouse, as if to leave no doubt about the youth’s ultimate fate.
Touki Bouki was in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 1973, but Mambéty quickly disappeared from the world-cinema spotlight. Friends and critics have suggested possible reasons: he was unable to gain financing in the precarious circumstances of African filmmaking, or the conditions placed on getting funds were unacceptable. His ambitions and standards were incompatible with the means at his disposal. It’s also possible that his dystopian vision brought him to a dead end politically. Sembène’s Marxian perspective was at least familiar and, no matter how critical of the state, offered the possibility of amelioration. Mambéty was not a misanthrope; his films exuded warmth for the poor and for children. But for him, neither the former European colonizers nor the independent neocolonial state offered much hope for sustaining or improving their lives.
“I began to make Hyenas when I realized I absolutely had to find one of the characters in Touki Bouki,” Mambéty told an interviewer in explanation of how he took up filmmaking again after nearly 20 years. He was referring to Anta, the girl who remained on the ship when Mory ran away, and presumably sailed off to a new life in France. He found her, he said, in a 1956 play by the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Visit, from which he adapted the screenplay for Hyenas. Fortuitously, by the early ’90s, structures were in place to finance the film from a consortium of European media and cultural institutions.
If Anta is truly the woman of Hyenas in Mambéty’s eyes, then it casts an even more dour light back on Touki Bouki. In the new film, Linguère Ramatou returns to Colobane—the village on Dakar’s outskirts where, as it happens, Mambéty was born—after 30 years’ absence. Pregnant, she had been cast out as a teenager when her lover, Draman Drameh, bribed two men to testify that they also had sexual relations with her. Her baby died and she became a prostitute, roaming the world and becoming fabulously wealthy. “She’s richer than the World Bank,” the villagers say admiringly, expecting that she will pour her wealth back into their now debt-ridden, run-down, dilapidated backwater. She’s only slightly more demanding than that international financial body: she will give Colobane 100,000 million francs if its citizens murder Draman Drameh.