The dreamer

As Africa’s first filmmakers made their unique steps in Africanizing cinema, few were as bold as Djibril Diop Mambéty who employed cinema to service his dreams.

Still from "Touki Bouki."

In the recent publication of the decennial Sight & Sound Top 250 Greatest Films of All Time list, two African films were placed within the top 100. Ousmane Sembéne’s La Noire De/Black Girl landed in the 95th spot and Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki earned the highest rank at 65. Of the two, Sembéne is the most visible of all African filmmakers and despite the prominence of Touki Bouki, very little is known about the director of one of Africa’s most famous and accomplished films. 

In some significant part, this was Mambéty’s intention. Sembéne was a worldly socialite, especially in his later career as his work gained recognition. Mambéty, otherwise, was a famously enigmatic figure who retreated from publicity and social life; always ensconced in his thoughts. He’s often quoted for saying “Cinema is magic in the service of dreams.” His films were as restless and undefinable as he was. In attempts to make sense of the complexity of his cinema, generic post-colonial ascriptions are encoded into his work which does very little to help understand its totality and intention. 

This video essay explores Mambéty’s dreams and how he used cinema to service them, embracing their contradictions and revelations. It’s the second chapter in a series dedicated to profiling the lives and work of Africa’s pioneering filmmakers in partnership with Africa Is a Country. We launched the series with Ousmane Sembéne, and Mambéty’s tribute proves an appropriate sequel.

There is no recorded interaction between Sembéne and Mambéty, two of the three giants of Senegalese cinema, but their work exists in fascinating counter-play to one another. Sembéne was a classical Marxist, who had a natural affinity for the proletariat and cynicism for the ruling class in post-colonial Senegal. As critical as Sembéne was toward the state, he still sought some amelioration with it In stark contrast, Mambéty was a capital “A” anarchist, who rebelled against almost everything and consequently, was never as incisive as Sembéne. The lack of precision, however, gave him a wider scope and freedom to explore paradoxes and dialecticism in his work. 

Africa’s first filmmakers made their unique steps in Africanizing an art form that had existed for a half-century before they could wield it. Few were as bold as Mambéty. Globalized streaming platforms and Hollywood’s enduring cultural hegemony ensure that most people are taught one language of cinema. A newer cinema is possible, and there are risks worth taking, as Mambéty argued: “Either one is very popular and one talks to people in a simple and plain manner, or else one searches for an African film language.” At the age of 56, his search was untimely cut short, but his legacy lives on as a roadmap toward imagining an African cinema that dares to speak its own language.

Further Reading