Djibril Diop Mambety envisions a fantastical world without consequences for his protagonists in his 1973 film, Touki Bouki. But there is an air of melancholy underpinning the narrative because the characters appear to be cogs in a cycle of nothingness. Mambety’s sometimes non-linear narrative coupled with peculiar editing and overly kinetic transitions point towards a film that is largely experimental, a bit of a novelty in my experience with vintage African cinema.
I’m yet to see Bonnie & Clyde, but the central duo in Touki Bouki, seemingly lovers, evoke the idea of that film I have built up in my mind. We have here Mory, a deadbeat ruffian who owns a motorbike with an ox skull mounted on the handlebars, and Anta, a disillusioned University student tired of the revolutionary struggle. The two look to flee Senegal to their utopic vision of France. Mory, for one, dreams of being able to flirt with “mulattos” and thrive in society without “black and white” constraints of the Senegalese setting.
A chunk of Touki Bouki sees Mory and Anta engage in ludicrous and fraught schemes to raise money to fund their trip, like their attempted heist of donation money for a General de Gaulle Memorial at a traditional wrestling meet. Their most successful effort sees them get the better of a flamboyant gay man who fancied Mory.
I spent a chunk of the first two acts more impressed with Mambety’s eccentric style more than anything else. There are striking juxtapositions that enforce the transitions of African society, like a cowboy herding cattle in serene plains matched up against scenes in a dreary abattoir with floors painted in crimson where cattle are butchered. This theme seems to be encapsulated in the design of Mory’s motorbike – a subtle ode to the simpler days but a surrender to the changing times.
These juxtapositions extend to slum dwellers hustling in the backdrop emergent high-rise buildings. Mambety and his camera weave through everyday lives of lower rungs of the city. His measuring wide shots capture the sea of rusted roofing sheets interspaced with colour from garments for sale. Noise from an aircraft’s engine floods through the slum, followed by cries from a baby and then sirens – all equally annoying to Anta who we see trying to do some studying. Mambety’s carefully crafted incisive sensory choices give life and vibrant detail to the setting.
For some reason, ‘70s Francophone cinema seemed to wield more brazen expressions of sexuality unexpected from countries that remain conservative to this day. The aforementioned homosexual is trotted out in the film’s stride and is open about escapades with multiple men. Then there’s the bout of passionate seaside sex initiated by Anta scored to her moans and the sound of waves crashing below.
The idea of futility in Mambety’s script remains poignant to contemporary African societies. But is this a critique or merely a resigned dissection. Our director’s approach remains too open ended to tell. The step up from rural to urban, unschooled to educated remains unfulfilling for persons in this setting. The final play is a trip overseas, however, a dark cloud of regret lingers, as evidenced by key twists in Touki Bouki’s denouement. The dissatisfaction with the status quo seems to be fine by Mambety as there is no reason for contentment given the neglect and poverty Mory endures. Their desire to leave their homeland isn’t fuelled by grief. It is driven by an indigent existence.
Mambety isn’t overly militant in his anti-colonialism beats (as compared to a Sembene) but early on, we listen to Anta’s mum lament how she is yet to receive any letter from her son in France. Her friend responds by reminding her nothing good comes from France and that she could look forward to him bringing back a white woman and her disease. We also spend some time with some posh French types and the expected colonial and racist undertones rear their head, so France is obviously a false paradise for Mory and Anta.
So where does this leave us? A film about dreams I guess. In a whimsical sequence after Mory and Anta rob the opulent gay man and commandeer his luxury car adorned with the stars and stripes of the American flag, they are hailed like the faces of a victorious fight for independence. The streets are lined with masses cheering and a guard of honour as Mory and Anta wave their like royalty. The sequence narrows in on faces familiar to them, including an aunt of Anta’s Mory owes, and they are treated like the second coming. The masses glorify their fancy clothes and western adornments, enforcing why the Western upgrade is so coveted.
There are pan-African tinges to this film, albeit, heavily coated in pessimism. It feels like the core romance in Touki Bouki is between Mory and his homeland, but the as soundtrack foreshadows, with the odd looping and lyrics about love being fleeting, this is one heading for heartbreak, much like the cattle destined for slaughter.