Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Touki Bouki


Beyoncé and Jay-Z recreation


TOUKI BOUKI (Journey of the Hyena)                   A-                                                             Senegal  (95 mi)  1973

Touki Bouki was conceived at the time of a very violent crisis in my life.  I wanted to make a lot of things explode.       – Djibril Diop Mambéty

An absurdist anti-capitalist fever dream taking place in post-colonial Dakar, a political satire heavily influenced by the French New Wave, given a Godardian twist of mystical unfathomability, considered, along with Med Hondo’s SOLEIL Ô (1967), to be Africa’s first avant-garde films, never settling upon any narrative form, instead becoming a fragmented series of randomly occurring events, shot almost exclusively outdoors in vibrant colors by Georges Bracher and Pap Samba Sow, using a jarringly different sound design with a radical use of music that adds additional meaning to the bold imagery, actually providing the film’s cutting edge, creating a different style of film.  Mambéty, the son of an Islamic imam, began making films at the age of 23 with no formal training in filmmaking, coming instead from a theater background, directing and producing five short films and only two features in his lifetime, but they are landmark films, offering a Brechtian assault to the senses, believing the role of a filmmaker is that of a griot, a traditional African storyteller imbued with wisdom and cultural awareness, viewed as a visionary.  Part of the film’s appeal, particularly on the African continent, is that it doesn’t have that polished film school look or a recognizable political agenda, yet it contains a combustible anger and force from the staggering originality.  His first feature is a perplexing road movie that passes through a rabbit hole juxtaposing modernity and tradition, showing a collision of cultures at odds with themselves, yet for the uninitiated they should understand there are very few films like this.  Using surreal Buñuel-style metaphors of cattle being led to slaughter (including brutally graphic slaughterhouse images), the film makes similar suggestions that the migratory path for economic opportunities from Africa to Europe through traditional colonial trading partners may be a bad idea, as Africans get devoured and eaten alive in wealthy capitalist economies, with Africans at the lowest end of the wage scale, ruthlessly exploited, relegated to manual labor while less skilled whites are given preferential treatment, offered the most hazardous jobs, subject to racist abuse and mistreatment, never finding that elusive freedom they were looking for.  Like Godard’s Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) (1959) and Pierrot le Fou (1965), the film features a pair of criminal lovers on the run, Mory (Magaye Niang), a young cowherd living a traditional life bound by the economic restrictions of the land, yet he drives around town on a motorcycle adorned with a bulls skull and horns (a recurring African motif), and Anta (Mareme Niang), a liberated college student with closely cropped hair and dressed in pants, where she can easily be mistaken for a man.  With no money to speak of, they plan an escape on a ship headed to France, pretending to be rich Europeans so as not to draw attention, blending into the normal and everyday European reality, aided by hustling up some needed cash, where they can initially be viewed as throwing their money around in exorbitant tips.  Together they resemble a modern era Bonnie and Clyde (1967) of Dakar, neither one particularly likeable, dissatisfied with their own bleak lives, both fantasizing about their escape to a heavily romanticized version of France, exemplified by familiar refrains from a popular Josephine Baker song that repeats throughout, “Paris, Paris, Paris,” Touki Bouki YouTube (1:41).  Still recovering from a history of French colonization, made just 13 years after independence in 1960, still dependent upon French financing and equipment to make films, it’s ironic that what they admire most about French culture is wealth and status, the same social barriers used by the French to exploit Africans and keep them in their place.  Nonetheless, dressed in the latest fashionable attire, they view themselves as conquering heroes when they return, complete with a citywide ceremonial parade lauding their success, money lining their pockets, transcending the cycle of poverty that defines Africa.  Baker represents an iconic international star objectified by her race and gender, perhaps signifying an American exiled to France where she established a successful career that was never possible in America due to the hostile racial climate, yet here her black African roots are highlighted and culturally reclaimed with reverence and distinction. 

As relevant as ever, with thousands of young Africans caught in a relentless migratory pattern in pursuit of a better life in the west, risking their lives, often dying at sea, driven by despair and deluded hopes.  Made on a budget of $30,000, the portrait of life in Dakar is devastating, revealing a congested shantytown in Dakar with people literally living on top of each other, where there is a montage of brightly dressed young girls lined up at the communal water source to carry buckets of water on their heads, with Mory owing unpaid debts to seemingly everyone, resulting in one woman, Aminata Fall as Aunt Oumy, placing a hex upon him, vowing revenge, yet in their imagined utopian dream she’s the one offering platitudes welcoming their successful return.  The motorcycle, however, offers a symbol of African freedom and independence, showing little children chasing after it, like an elusive hope or aspiration, while the mixture of diverse sound and musical styles becomes the cornerstone of the film, adding an experimental dimension designed to shock the audience into a different awareness, allowing Mambéty to literally reinvent African cinema, perhaps epitomizing the contradictory paradoxes of cultural exchange between post-colonial Africa, Europe and America.  Departing from the social realist tradition of Ousmane Sembène, Mambéty frames Senegal as a nation in perpetual change, expressed in the highly unorthodox film aesthetic, where the two characters themselves are the picture of ambiguity and uncertainty, barely uttering a word to one another, continually keeping the audience off-balance, deflecting all expectations.  Whatever internal struggles that may exist for these two characters is overshadowed by the boldness of the jump cut editing, with little continuity between shots, creating a picture of fragmented images that only consolidate afterwards, becoming a unified whole.  Among the most noticeable capitalist signifiers are Mobil oil tanks, gigantic Renault car ads, and a luxury Mercedes Benz being loaded onto the ship.  One of Frantz Fanon’s warnings was predicting the colonized would act like the colonizers, treating their own in the same abusive way, which comes to pass when Mory has an ugly incident with a university group of Maoist revolutionaries who decide to violently mock and terrorize him, momentarily kidnapping him before subjecting him to torture, mirroring the grotesque early slaughterhouse images of cattle being herded into slaughter, with audible animal cries of horror quickly blended into children’s cries and the noises of Dakar, which include the Islamic call to prayers.  This merging of sound and image fuses together forming an African identity, suggesting it is shaped by a multitude of forces.  Another overt image is the ferocity of the ocean, with waves seen crashing against the rocks on the shoreline, which is what’s shown onscreen during the couple’s lone lovemaking scene, mixing ecstatic moans into the sounds of screaming seagulls and shorebirds, all merged into one natural world.  In a strange turn, they take a cab ride to the outskirts of town, viewed as a dangerous and inhospitable place, as the Europeans gather there in resort style accommodations, seen cavorting by the pool, where Mory quickly takes the place of another male consort, chosen at the whim of a queer French-speaking businessman (Ousseynou Diop, the director’s brother) who flaunts his wealth and seems to relish sleeping with the hired help, inviting Mory into his lavish suite, who quickly steals his clothes while Anta steals his wallet, now fully prepared to make their way to the heavily fortified shipping docks.     

Initially panned by the Senegalese public and press, it is now regarded as one of Africa’s greatest films, at #93 listed higher than any other African film in the 2012 BFI Sight and Sound poll, Critics' top 100 | BFI.  Markedly different from most other African films, largely due to the fiercely independent and experimental style, absurdly paying its debt to Godard’s gangsters, echoing Western attitudes, where France is seen as a paradise on earth, little more than a mirage, repeated in the musical refrain from the Josephine Baker song, which only repeats the lyric “Paris, Paris, Paris/You’re a kind of paradise on Earth,” which is its own form of deluded wish fulfillment.  This sentiment was previously explored by Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (La Noir de...) (1966), where a hired help’s dreams of life in France are dashed, feeling squashed and imprisoned instead of liberated, treated more like a slave, where she was expected to be “grateful” for the opportunity.  Perhaps the most absurd reference is a Tarzan-like figure, initially seen in a tree, later seen riding Mory’s motorcycle before coming to an unceremonious end in a crash, with suggestions that some outdated stereotypes need to come to an end and be put to rest as well.  Caught up in the winds of change, between the confining authority of local tradition and the extremely limited economic prospects at home, much of the film’s imagery is seemingly reflective of Mory’s constantly-in-flux state of mind, alternating between the internal and external, never offering a clear internalized view, where this is never about an individual character’s personal development but a nation’s changing identity, explored through absurdly heightened exaggeration and hallucinatory compositions, occasionally humorous, but more often devastating, where at least in their eyes, Dakar is immune to happiness and progress.  Told with a spontaneous exuberance, the final scenes are perhaps the most telling, making their way to the harbor, which has a rhythm all its own, including its own unique sound design, with lines of waiting Africans trying to get onboard, with derogatory racist commentary heard on the ship’s deck by well-educated white French passengers, including the abominable words of a cynical professor who finds a complete lack of culture and art in Senegal, holding views completely disassociating themselves from “Africa,” which they view with derision and contempt, dehumanizing the entire continent, showing their true colors.  But the film itself flies in the face of what he utters, offering proof of the contrary, where the stereotypical savages left on the continent may well be these white neocolonialists that hold firm to their prejudiced, sanctimonious views.  As luxury goods are loaded and classical musical refrains can be heard, Mory and Anta board as well, where she steps forward, but he hesitates, has a change of heart, not willing to really abandon his home, stepping backwards, leaving Anta aboard the ship while he dashes back through the city in a dizzying reassemblage of his confused identity, resulting in an extraordinary jazz fusion that is just sublime, TOUKI BOUKI YouTube (5:29).  Yet we’re left with a profound sadness and moral frustration, with each heading for opposite shores, their futures completely uncertain, with Mory discovering his crashed motorcycle laying on the street surrounded by blood, grabbing what’s left of the broken skull and horns, left sitting all alone to dwell in his own existential thoughts, as the giant passenger ships in the harbor heading to Europe are replaced by smaller crafts that reflect the Dakar influence, touki bouki (1973) - final song YouTube (4:32).  A seminal work in African cinema, and key to the establishment of a new, post-colonial identity, misappropriated by Beyoncé and Jay-Z in the summer of 2018, again using Africans as a colonialist commodity, vowing allegiance to the almighty dollar (raking in a quarter of a billion dollars for themselves in just 4 months), restaging the film’s iconic image for their On the Run II world tour (SMPS-PRT-2018101115440.pdf).  The sad truth is that little has changed in nearly half a century, where the lure of the west continues to be an elusive dream that desperate lives are driven to follow.   

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