The value of a people and their social structure

Djibril Diop Mambéty's film "Touki Bouki" is an excellent example of how the contemporary can be read through the (re)construction of myths and narratives from a collective memory.

Still from "Touki Bouki.".

This is, perhaps, one of my favorite films of all time. A shifting and fragmentary tale of two young lovers — Mory and Anta — and their attempts to flee Senegal for Paris, ‘Touki Bouki’ is Djibril Diop Mambéty’s masterpiece. It fizzles with wit and acuity, it diagnoses the ambivalence toward the colonial master and the at times surreal practices of ‘traditional’ culture. My reading of the film is undoubtedly influenced by the following quote, a manifesto of sorts, from Mambéty: “The word griot … is the word for what I do and the role that the filmmaker has in society … the griot is a messenger of one’s time, a visionary and the creator of the future.”

In comparing himself to the traditional storyteller figure in West African society, Mambéty bridges the divide between what was considered ‘traditional’ and modern, defying the colonial logic desiring to cast the native population as inherently anti-technological. In his comparison, Mambéty invokes the fragmentary, questioning narrative — deeply embedded within aural traditions — and fuses his filmic sensibility with this social practice. As a result, many Western critics argued that Mambéty’s films were ‘poorly constructed’ (see e.g. Melissa Thackway, Africa Shoots Back, 2003, p.78), but this digressive narrative style can be observed in Mambéty’s ‘Le Franc’ (1994), Med Hondo’s ‘Soleil O’ (1969) or Abdourahmane Sissako’s ‘Octobre’ (1991), all of whom employ a challenging structure which can be traced to a style of oral storytelling.

What this narrative style does is provide an insight into the value of a people and their social structure (through Mory and Anta, we are shown how the status quo of Senegalese society is negotiated by a younger generation), while using traditional means to diagnose a contemporary reading of the present. It’s a flow of exchange between old and new, a negotiation, perhaps perfectly embodied in Mory’s motorbike — a slick piece of machinery adorned with the horns of a bull. But, it is also important to note that while I’m tracing a symmetry between the griot style of storytelling and orality ‘at work’ in Mambéty’s filmmaking, I’m not transposing one onto the other; it’s not the case that oral literature is inherently cinematic, but rather, that through negotiation one can empower the other.

An apt example of Mambéty’s style in ‘Touki Bouki’ is a sharp cut between a young boy (Mory) riding a bucking cow, accompanied by a soundtrack of glittering kora music, to — in a split second edit — an abattoir where bulls are being slaughtered, the screaming sound of animal terror tearing the viewer away from the previous tranquil scene. From the dreamy calm of a pastoral history, to the brutality of industry, mass production, ‘the market’, Mambéty’s edit is at once a critique of a nostalgia for Senegal’s ‘pure’ pastoral, pre-colonial past, and its (then) current position as part of the French Empire. This edit shows Mambéty’s penchant for discontinuity, for symbolism, and for a stultifying lyricism, perhaps I’d even go so far as to say a kind of percussive editing rhythm, as if perhaps Tony Allen were at the cutting table.

But further than just his narrative style, Mambéty seems to embody this position of a ‘modern’ griot, using contemporary modes of visual storytelling to further the narrative arts he was born into. And why not? His films are excellent examples of how the contemporary can be read through the (re)construction of myths and narratives from a collective memory — breathing life into the space occupied by a set of symbolic codes of both tradition and modernity, that through his films are rendered synchronous and simultaneous, a point Imruh Bakari makes brilliantly in the book ‘African Experiences of Cinema’. A notion of modernity, in this context, is powerfully wrenched from its Western stronghold, used instead to attest to what Bakari calls ‘the complex tonality of the African experience’.

So, while Mory and Anta trick and swindle their way closer to Paris, Mambéty tests certain situations and norms; he demonizes the ‘revolutionary’, he shows a gay character, he shows sex between two African people in a way rarely ever shown before; full of tenderness, eroticism, reclaiming love and intimacy from the stereotypes of Western presentation. Mory and Anta make love in the shadow of the motorbike, on the edge of a cliff. It’s a breathtaking scene, their impassioned gasps slowly drowned by the repetitive crashing of the waves.

Throughout the film they are intimately tied together. However, in the final moments when they finally board the boat to go to France, Mory is overwhelmed as he sees the horns of his motorbike, and runs back to land to find it. In doing so he abandons Anta to travel alone. Manthia Diawara notes that this is typical of the griot narrative, which flirts with change but ultimately restores order by returning to the traditional. Mory flees back to the medina (the slum), restoring him, and the narrative, back to tradition.

But Mambéty also subverts this unconditional return. Through his depiction of their dress and behavior, Mambéty demonstrates that the contemporary youth are multi-sited; when their actions denote one place, their dress reveals another place. Mambéty has therefore employed a typical griot narrative, but subverted it. Despite ultimately restoring the narrative to the blissful calm of the traditional herdsman scene that traverses the arid landscape of rural Senegal, Mambéty has consistently fused traditional symbols to modern modes of being, most strikingly in Mory’s motorbike.

  • You can watch ‘Touki Bouki’ on Mubi (by signing up to their service — they have many fantastic films on their site), or you can watch it on The African Film Library for US$5.

Further Reading

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After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.