Blu-ray Review: Djibril Diop Mambéty's Formative TOUKI BOUKI from Criterion
Sengelase filmmaking comes through with a one-two punch in back-to-back Blu-rays.
February saw Mandabi hit the Criterion Collection as a new release, from late director Ousmane Sembene, who some called the Father of African Cinema; now, Criterion follows with a Blu-ray upgrade of the feature debut of one of Sembene's many "second-generation" successors, Djibril Diop Mambéty. The film is Touki Bouki, and -- perhaps appropriately -- I've arrived at it backwards.
Mambéty's niece, Mati Diop, directed one of the best films of the 2010s, Atlantics (also purportedly due from the Criterion Collection at some point... though their two-year delay on that point is irksome), and based on that film I sought out her cache of five short films on the Criterion Channel. One of those -- Mille Soleils (A Thousand Suns) -- catches up with Magaye Niang, who starred in Touki Bouki in 1973, and is now a zebu herder.
It's poignant and slightly uncanny, given (some spoilers following) that this is exactly where Touki Bouki leaves him as a young man, unable or unwilling to step onto a boat that will take him and his lover to France, returning instead to the Senegal he has known all his life, and from which up to now he has been trying to escape.
Touki Bouki is an experimental riff on the lovers-on-the-run trope, recalling Godard's Breathless, albeit in a cinematic language that makes Godard's jump cuts and nihilistic anti-formalism seem childish.
Whimsically detailing Mory (Niang) and Anta (Myriam Niang, no relation)'s efforts at hustling enough petty cash to, effectively, tip their way into France, Touki Bouki is a complex first feature and a difficult watch for a mainstream audience. For all the degree to which it suggests French and American films of the same genre -- Mory's moped is dolled up with vicious-looking zebu horns and a fertility idol, rendering it as iconic as Captain America's motorbike in Easy Rider -- Mambéty's non-linear, non-narrative tone poem is working in a different register entirely.
It can be difficult to find the line between frequent deviations into fantasy, as the characters imagine outcomes of their adventures that contradict realities we've already been shown (and, indeed, at one point a character seems to legitimately sob another character back to life, after a murder); there are also seeming-fantasies that turn out to be real.
Shots loop and repeat as motifs, and alienating impulses -- several nauseating sequences of live animal slaughter; an insanity-inducing repetition of a single refrain from a Josephine Baker song on the soundtrack -- do their best to push the audience away.
There's fun to be had, nonetheless, as Mory cons a gay aristocrat out of (literally) his clothes; and Anta and Mory play-act as wealthy folks, complete with luxury car bearing (the other) Captain America's shield on the tail. Made for around $30,000, Touki Bouki revels in the poetics of a crowd of children bursting into a run, or a nude Mory grandstanding in the passenger seat of a car.
A lengthy recollection of the making of the film, by Mambéty's brother Wasis Diop and his daughter, filmmaker Mati Diop, is the best additional feature on the Blu-ray. The segment begins to dig into some of Mambéty's non-linear, non-narrative strategies in crafting the film. Of particular note -- especially because Wasis Diop is a musician -- is the commentary on the use of sound throughout the film. This is further underlined by Ashley Clark in the liner notes, tying back to when Mambéty, as a child, sometimes listened to films from outside the cinema, when he could not afford to enter.
Restored by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project in 2013, the new Blu-ray features an intro from Uncle Marty, along with a restoration of Mambéty's second film, a short called Contras City.
Journey of the Hyena
- Djibril Diop Mambéty
- Djibril Diop Mambéty
- Magaye Niang
- Myriam Niang
- Christoph Colomb
- Mustapha Ture