TOUKI BOUKI (1973)

  • Director: Djibril Diop Mambety
  • Writer: Djibril Diop Mambety
  • Starring: Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang, Aminata Fall, and Ousseynou Diop
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#97), 2019 Slate.com Black Film Canon, 1973 Moscow Film Festival – Best Film, Screened at 1973 Cannes Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max and the Criterion Channel

I’ll confess that I didn’t fully understand what was happening a fairly decent percentage of the time in Touki Bouki. The main language in the movie is Wolof, the largest native language of Senegal, along with a couple of neighboring countries, but that is not why. The dialogue of the movie is sparse, anyway. One essay I reviewed called the movie “jazzy,” which seems to refer more to the freestyle nature of the editing choices than it does to the soundtrack. Dijibril Diop Mambety was only 28 years old when he directed this, his debut film, and he is clearly heavily influenced by both the French New Wave and the freewheeling, anti-authoritarian crime movies from both America and France that the New Wave spawned, like Pierrot le Fou and Bonnie and Clyde. However, he is less interested in using those ideas to tell a specific story than he is in exploring the dualities of post-colonial Africa. There are long stretches in this movie that wouldn’t be particularly out of place in Avant Garde films, like Ritual in Transfigured Time from the other day.

The title translates roughly from Wolof as The Hyena’s Journey, which again is more of a metaphor than anything else. The basic story involves a young couple, Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang), who feel alienated and sick of life in Senegal. They devise a series of schemes intended to get them the money they need in order to get passage to France, while dreaming of an idealized Paris. Josephine Baker singing “Paris, Paris” is a recurrent theme on the soundtrack, especially over incongruous visuals. Eventually, Mory steals the money (as well as a bunch of fancy clothes) from Charlie, a homosexual friend who went to France and came back rich (Ousseynou Diop). He now lives in a seaside mansion with several scantily clad men. They get to the boat, but Mory stops on the gangplank and runs back, suddenly unable to leave Senegal. As Anta sails away on a boat full of haughty French people and their miniature poodles, Mory finds himself sitting disconsolately in the street with a wrecked motorcycle.

This description makes the plot seem much more linear and filled out than it actually is. Mambety likes to cut backwards and forwards in time in the middle of scenes. In one sequence, they steal a trunk that they think contains the take from tickets to wrestling match (to “raise money for a statue of Charles de Gaulle”), but after hauling it miles away it pops open to reveal… a human skull? In another sequence, Mory and Anta wave to a cheering crowd like royalty as they pass in a parade in their fancy clothes. Is this in their heads, their heroic send off to France? Did they sneak into the parade somehow because they look rich?

I don’t want it to sound like these are criticisms. They are, as one commentator noted, ambiguities that “illuminate rather than obscure.” Which is to say, it’s not confusing because Mambety doesn’t know what he’s doing, it’s confusing because he knows exactly what he’s doing. The sound design, in particular, does more work in this movie than in almost anything else I’ve ever seen. A woman laughing at Moty merges into the cries of the gulls, which eventually faintly echo back into the same laughter, which merges with the sound of the waves. It is telling us what Mambety wants to tell us, not what is literally happening. 

Mambety identified as part of a movement that called itself “Third Cinema,” which used new techniques to tell the stories of the post-colonial world. According to the original manifesto of this group, the “First Cinema” was old-style Hollywood films, while the “Second Cinema” was the more modernist response thereto by filmmakers like the French New Wave. Touki Bouki builds on rather than imitates these techniques. It is not a window into Senegalese society of the 1970s as much as it is a snapshot of the mind of someone living in that society.

I should probably mention here, as a warning, that the first scene of the movie involves cattle being led slowly down a road, as they likely have in Senegal since the beginning of time, but they are being led to a slaughterhouse. Mambety’s camera then lingers on the cows being slaughtered, by which I mean we actually watch them being killed and bleeding all over the floor of the abattoir. Mambety returns to these images at the end of the movie, contrasting them with Anta riding off on the ship. He’s making these juxtapositions through the whole movie, asking us what we think of them. After the cattle, we see a scene of village life, with a woman selling vegetables and water being handed out from a pump. It isn’t until the end of this sequence that Mambety turns his camera around and we see that the “village” is surrounded by modern high-rises.

As I’ve said, Touki Bouki has the basic underlying story structure of a movie about young people doing crime escapades, but it lacks any of the actual trappings of a movie like that. There aren’t any guns in this movie that I can recall. Even the loan shark enforcer we meet at one point is just walking around with a big club. Our heroes have absolutely no interest in killing anyone. They just want the money, and they don’t mind stealing it, the main problem being they’re not criminals or particularly good at stealing. One of the things that most struck me in the story is the way it relates to law enforcement. Bonnie and Clyde ends with the heroes getting caught by the cops, who basically act as an inevitable force of doom. But in Touki Bouki, our heroes get caught multiple times over the course of the story, but there are no consequences, because the police have no interest whatsoever in doing their job. While hauling away the trunk with the skull in it, Moty gets pulled over and starts making elaborate excuses to the police officer. “Just get out of here,” the cop says gruffly, “don’t mess up my career.” Then he goes back to his very ineffective direction of traffic.

In the end, if you strip away all the stuff I don’t 100% understand (but want to), I think that’s what Mambety’s doing here. He’s seen all those same movies his audience has seen. But when he saw those movies, he thought, “well, that’s not how it works around here.” So, he made his own movie, in his own language, about the things he wanted to make it about. And it’s movies like Touki Bouki that make wandering through world cinema such an adventure sometimes, and why I really do think it’s worthwhile.

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