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The Journey of the Hyena
The opening minutes of Touki Bouki (1973) take us along for the journey as cattle are herded from the countryside in Senegal to the slaughterhouse floor. Before I have a chance to realize what I’m about to witness, the most jarring, unflinching minute of film I may have ever witnessed. I’ve seen acts of violence depicted with brutal fidelity in various movies over the years (Scorsese comes to mind), but what makes the slaughter of a cow here-in so jarring; neck hacked, blood spraying onto a dirty tile floor, and a man idly watching while smoking; is the knowledge that I am witnessing actual violence. This will not be the last scene in the movie that shows animal slaughter, and you would be forgiven for deciding to forgo this movie if you’re uncomfortable with this imagery.
We meet Anta (Myriam Niang), who is on her way to the university. Her mother is selling vegetables and cheeses on a table outside their ramshackle house that sits among hundreds of similar homes in their village in Dakar. Anta has to intervene on her mother’s behalf when a neighbor attempts to “pay later” for some of the produce. As Anta leaves, her mother calls after her, asking if she will be hanging out with ‘that boy’ again and whether he’ll be riding an actual cow or a motorcycle with a cow skull on it. Her mother’s voice drips with disdain. We also meet Mory (Magaye Niang), a young cowherd who seems to be struggling to find a direction. He rides his motorcycle to the university and is attacked by students. These two characters represent a spectrum of feelings that will be relatable to anyone who has grown up in a place that made them feel trapped. The character’s choices by the film's end will always stay with me. What would I have done?
Touki Bouki makes better use of the conceits of the French New Wave than many of the films considered “French New Wave.” This isn’t a particularly controversial statement, but for anyone unfamiliar with the different eras of cinema, allow me to link you to Wikipedia for a brief summation of the French New Wave. (I highly recommend this film era for folks looking to deepen their appreciation of movies. It’s a great reminder that using movie cameras has only been happening for ~100 years. As evolved primates with a magic box and crank, we’re still exploring and discovering exciting ways to tell stories.) Filmed with many real people on the streets of Dakar, the movie gives us many long stretches of sound and photography without dialogue. It challenges us to work through and infer feelings and intentions from aggressively edited imagery and sound that made me feel unmoored in time; I witnessed the personal journey of two characters across an ancient but evolving landscape. I was simultaneously confronted with a view of how history might judge these individuals.
The story isn’t limited to Anta and Mory. Many cross-sections of Senegalese culture and life are threaded into the narrative. Two Senegalese men fight in a stadium to raise money for a memorial to Charles de Gaulle. A man climbs a hill to reach the roadside. It’s a more arduous climb than it should be, and when he finally comes to the top, he stands and waits, an enormous Mobil petroleum storage tank looming in the background. A woman skins a goat, preserving the hide while getting to the meat. Children carry plastic buckets of water back to their village from the well. We become so enmeshed in Senegalese culture in a short span of the movie that by the end, when two white travelers are sitting on a boat discussing the causes of the problems they perceive in Senegal, it’s infuriating.
Touki Bouki presents problems of life in Dakar and Senegal but never throws its hands up in resignation. It is unsparing in its portrayal of colonialism’s effect on the country. The existence of the movie itself betrays the director’s love and pride for his home, despite its raw depiction. The gnawing struggle of Mory and Anta shows us the raw thoughts and feelings that a generation of youth derives from their home. I felt as if I was trying to cope with them, trying to figure out what to do next to keep striving for a better life while trying not to get distracted by the ever-present flashes of brutality engendered by a changing society. The massive strengths of this movie are its editing, sound design, cinematography, and a dearth of dialogue. The film doesn’t rely on dialogue to convey its message. The editor of Touki Bouki is Siro Asteni, and this film is the only film it seems on which he has ever worked. I mention him because there is a ruthless efficiency to the film's pacing, and I am at a loss for how this happened given its New Wave style. Did the director, Mambéty, write a tight script, or did Asteni whittle down hours of footage to bring the message forward?
I was surprised to find Touki Bouki made me consider so many modern questions: Why do we feel pressure to buy the newest smartphone every year or upgrade to a more recent, possibly better model of a toaster? How often have I logged onto a shopping website without needing to go shopping? Does the non-stop cycle of “new” improve our quality of life? These questions started to tease their way in and out of the film’s narrative: Is it better to ride a motorcycle than a cow? How did we find fulfillment before smartphones existed? How will Mory find fulfillment as things evolve and outside interests become more present in his home country? Mory might put a cow skull on his motorcycle, but it won’t hide what it is and the actual cost of owning it. The weight of the world's progress seems to swing back and forth like a pendulum, decimating the cultural progress that a smaller community had already made. It seems so evident in the hands of this filmmaker.
For many, life is decided before we begin. How can we escape the cattle call if we are born in the pen? Two questions that have been on my mind since watching Touki Bouki: What do you call a ruin when it starts that way? Must one become a hyena to survive a ruin?
Written and Directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty
Wolof and French
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
If you, like me, have had Touki Bouki on your watchlist forever, thanks to Martin Scorsese and the World Cinema Project (I see plenty of you on Letterboxd!), consider this your sign that it’s time to check this one off of your list finally.
While looking into Mambéty’s work, I came across the trailer for Hyenas, which I’m excited to add to my watchlist. Judging from the trailer alone, it seems that Mambéty has more to say about the themes he tackles in Touki Bouki. It is also the only other full-length film he made before passing away in 1998.
If you’re unfamiliar with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, you can read more about it here. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Scorsese’s contributions to film preservation worldwide. Consider donating! I’m excited to watch more world films from the collection, also available on Criterion.
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