Like his compatriot Ousmane Sembène, Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty found inspiration in the traditions of the French New Wave. Taking his cue from politicos like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, the young director was encouraged to explore the colonialist legacy of his country with a provocative, avant-garde debut feature.
Despite their shared interest, the similarities between Mambéty’s Touki Bouki and Sembène’s ground-breaking debut, Black Girl (1966), end there. Where the latter is a sombre, naturalistic portrayal of one woman’s subjugation at the hands of privileged French masters, Touki Bouki takes the barely comprehensible spirit of Godard’s late-sixties period, particularly Pierrot Le Fou (1965) and Weekend (1967), and shapes it into a hyperactive, lurid tale of greed and misplaced ambition.
At its centre are two young, restless lovers looking to flee Senegal for a better life in Europe. Anta (Mareme Niang) and Mory (Magaye Niang) spend their days dreaming of France and thinking of ways to get there, which mainly consist of different ways of ripping off anyone who gives them the opportunity. Their community recognises them as rogues, which means that a lot of the time they’re being chased away by belligerent aunts and agitated street vendors, or are otherwise in hiding from them.
Mambéty’s energetic, confusing style means that the story doesn’t progress as naturally as this brief synopsis suggests. He precedes the introduction of Anta and Mory with brutally frank images of cows being led to slaughter, their throats cut and left to bleed over the gore-soaked abattoir floor. It is no coincidence that Mory rides a motorcycle with a cow skull strapped to the handlebars; Mambéty makes a point of juxtaposing the slaughterhouse scene with a point-of-view introduction of Mory riding his steed. It is a graphic opening that casts a shadow over the dreams of the idealistic couple from the start.
Anta and Mory make it in the world, but only as crooks. Dressed in stolen clothes and riding in a hijacked, chauffeur-driven car painted in the stars-and-stripes of the USA, this vision of success is a corrosive one, where material riches are naively synonymised with freedom. Rather than transcending their surroundings, Anta and Mory instead feel compelled to flaunt their ill-gotten gains to the very people who castigated them back home. This corruptive influence – of wealth and the hunt for it – is crystallised even more sinisterly when a large trunk that Mory believes to be full of cash, and therefore his means of liberty, is opened to reveal a skull laid at the top.
This is all propelled by a frantic, disjointed style that makes it difficult to determine what is real and what is imagined. Do Anta and Mory’s dreams of France begin to intrude upon their story? Their reunion with the people of their village and the hero worship directed their way seems unlikely, Mory’s return as the rich, successful prodigal son nothing more than adolescent wish-fulfilment.
If that’s the case, it means that even the dreams of this young couple bear the trace of colonialist influence. Their country won its independence some years earlier but the legacy of its former governors is still felt, both in the immaculate French architecture of downtown Dakar and the perception of its citizens, those like Anta and Mory, who believe that their only future lies in Europe. ‘Paris…Paris…Paris…’ sings Josephine Baker on the soundtrack, a refrain that becomes loaded with irony as the couple strike their poses as faux-Parisiennes parading along the streets of Dakar, like royalty on the Champs-Élysées.
Touki Bouki is rich with symbolism and Mambéty’s use of montage is at once disorienting yet captivating. The director resisted any inclination to fall in line with the social realist trends of the time and instead created something truly unique. Beyond his frenzied compositions, though, there is an astute study of a country still determining its own post-independence future. In 1973, it announced Djibril Diop Mambéty as a great talent of world cinema.
Country: Senegal Language: Wolof, Arabic, French Year: 1973 Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Writer: Djibril Diop Mambéty Starring: Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang Runtime: 85 minutes