Djibril Diop Mambéty at 78 and TOUKI BOUKI at 50

Happy birthday Djibril Diop Mambéty!

The Senegalese filmmaker, and one of African cinema’s pioneers, made his mark on international cinema with his feature debut, the prophetic TOUKI BOUKI (Wolof for THE JOURNEY OF THE HYENA, 1973), which celebrates its milestone 50th anniversary this year.

The film’s departure from the conventional, didactic template followed by fellow African cinema greats like Ousmane Sembène, was a showcase of Mambéty’s determination to pursue artistic freedom, at a time when African film, in a post-colonial context, was just getting its bearings.

Showered with critical acclaim upon its release, TOUKI BOUKI’s depiction of 1970s Senegalese society — one of young Africans risking death at the Strait of Gibraltar, which separates the Iberian Peninsula from Morocco, trying to reach Europe — predates, by many decades, the contemporary African films that tackle a present-day reality that isn’t too dissimilar.

“The young nomads who think they can cross the desert ocean and find their own lucky star and happiness but are disappointed by the human cruelty they encounter,” as fellow African cinema great, Souleymane Cissé of Mali, once said.

It’s a subject matter that Mambéty’s niece, Mati Diop, confronted in her critically acclaimed feature debut ATLANTICS (2019).

Additionally, the image of Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang) on a motorcycle mounted with a bull-horned skull, has become one of cinema’s most indelible and iconic. A modern restaging of it spearheaded the promotional campaign for Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s 2018 ON THE RUN II TOUR.

Together with HYÈNES (HYENAS, 1992), Mambéty’s oeuvre — which comprises just two features and five shorts — has come to be recognized as one of the most important in the history of African film. Both TOUKI BOUKI and HYÈNES were to be followed by a third feature film, as part of a trilogy on colonization and corruption, but Mambéty died in 1998, in Paris, France, before completing the triptych.

An ÉCRANS D’AFRIQUE portrait of the filmmaker published the same year, summarized his complexities: “His revolts, his poetry, his alcoholism, his sensitivity, his wanderings, his arrogance, and his lucidity clothe him with a halo of legend — and make him a difficult director.”

And a conversation piece published in TRANSITION magazine just before the artist’s death described his dedication to his art as unassailable, and quoted Mambéty as follows:

One has to choose between engaging in stylistic research or the mere recording of facts. I feel that a filmmaker must go beyond the recording of facts. Moreover, I believe that Africans, in particular, must reinvent cinema. It will be a difficult task because our viewing audience is used to a specific film language, but a choice has to be made: 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 that would exclude chattering and focus more on how to make use of visuals and sounds.”

While the future he envisioned 25 years ago — one that is dynamic, introspective, and self-sustaining — remains elusive, it’s attainable. With a multilayered approach, exists in anticipation of that future.

In celebration of what would’ve been Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 78th birthday, and the 50th anniversary of the seminal work TOUKI BOUKI, set aside 20 minutes sometime this week to absorb the below conversation with the artist — quite possibly the only extant video-recorded interview with him. It can be found on DVDs featuring Mambéty’s short films, LE FRANC (1994) and LA PETITE VENDEUSE DE SOLEIL (THE LITTLE GIRL WHO SOLD THE SUN, 1999), which premiered after his death.

TOUKI BOUKI is currently streaming in the U.S. on the Criterion Channel and HBOMax.

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