Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena) Djibril Diop Membety (Senegal 1973) Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang, Aminita Fall
viewed at home 21 August 2020 from an obscure streaming platform.
Black claque for white clique
Membety’s opening comprises of a herd of white humped cattle with long extended horns advancing slowly but surely across the savannah. They move towards the camera led by a herdsboy sitting astride a dun coloured beast with an accompanying bucolic sounding flute on the soundtrack.
The timeless beauty of this sequence captures the imagination. The steers are noble beautiful animals that caress the senses; the herdsboy an archetypal image of the pastoral given resonance by the flute.
As an African rhapsody, the images fill out the screen. Then Membety acts. He dashes the image from our eyes as the idealised opening shots cut to the abattoir. In this sequence shot on the blood lit killing floor, we see these beautiful creatures have been led to the slaughter. As they are crudely killed they writhe and shriek out in their death spasm. Cut butchered and flayed they become meat. But whose meat?
It is to the answering of this implied question that Membety employs both the form and the structure of his movie. To document his theme of a betrayed land and people Membety could have had recourse to a straight forward story line. But Membety avoids a simple narrative structure and deploys the resources of film to create a tightly compressed psycho-history of the disaster of neo-colonialism. Membety’s theme is the exploitation and humiliation of Africa, the apparent rather than real transfer of power, with the substitution of a black claque for the white political economic clique which of course runs the show.
The male protagonist Mori combines the ‘new’ and the traditional, being herdsman and student. He displays this fusion by mounting onto the handlebars of his motorbike the emblematic skull and horns of one of the beasts he leads to their death. The reality is that machine and bone are only butt joined and will simply come apart, divided into two, like the city where he lives. Membety sets his film against the background of Dakar and Mori’s movement through this capital city.
There are two cities in Dakar. They don’t meet. One is occupied by the Europeans and their Senegalese high caste claque. It is characterised by fine modernistic buildings, stores, big houses and the highways leading to the escape routes of the port and the airport. The other town where the blacks live, in what the French call ‘Bidonville’. Accessed by rickety wooden bridges built over the highway, the natives live in a vast unending shanty town mostly without electricity or water. A people trapped in poverty betrayed and robbed with no way out, but with their dignity intact.
Neo-colonial cultural fusion is a conceit, designed to be apparent but not real. The prestige civic architecture is a fabricated cultural mirage designed to lead the populace into the desert of nowhere.
Mori takes up with the androgynous Anta. They understand their education is also sham, the fig leaf covering the emptiness and bleakness of their prospects. Education gives them dreams whilst spitting them back into the cardboard slums. As there is no future for them in Dakar other than as blacks, they plan to escape to Europe to cross the ocean that hems them in on Senegal’s shoreline.
And just as education in Africa is a charade so Mori and Anta see that also in some respects, is European power. It’s simply an outer guise, the ability to wear the clothing that marks you out as privileged; the adoption of an attitude of superiority that enables you to take anything to which you feel entitled. Taking up the manners apparel and attitude of whites they steal the clothes they need and with aplomb and without challenge they board the white ship that will lead them to France and away from black Africa.
Membety moving outside the confines of narrative produces a richly layered ironic witty and lacerating scenario. His film is still fresh and leaves its mark. Touki Bouki with its theme of escape from the intolerable is as relevant today as when it was first produced.