Djibril Diop Mambéty’s seminal Touki Bouki (1973) was a watershed moment in African cinema in general and Senegalese cinema in particular. It is a retrospective fame, but the film’s reputation among cinephiles worldwide tells something about both its originality of context and lasting cinematic appeal. On the one hand, there is the desire to see something of African cinema; not many of which are available for most audiences. On the other, there is the barrier of language and setting. This tension of being visible to the global while being particular to the local is what makes Touki Bouki what it is – a fractured exploration of fragmented identities. Perhaps ‘fragmented’ is the wrong word; more like a convergence of (and divergence from) multiple loci of identities.
The essence of Touki Bouki
The hybrid identity of postcolonial Senegal is the essence of Touki Bouki. It is not the first Senegalese film to embody such an identity. Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (1966) traverses related themes of spatial, racial, and cultural identity. One key difference is form; Sembène’s film refers to a more classical form of French New Wave, while Mambèty’s is more experimental in nature. The other is of course the different spatial contexts of the two films. Indigenous motifs appear in both the films, but in different spaces. In Black Girl, Senegal is transposed on Paris. In Touki Bouki, Paris on Senegal. The motif of the ship acts as a psycho-social interface between these two spaces.
Western Influences in Touki Bouki
Mambéty’s film seems to suggest – through its cacophonic overlap of French New Wave style and indigenous motifs, that fighting this hybridization is no good. The film both rebels against and embraces the alienation that comes with it, as does its characters in their own ways. Both Anta and Mory partake in the fantasy of running off to Paris from their alienating homeland. But they end up on different sides of that divide. Anta takes off in a ship to France but Mory finds that he cannot bring himself to leave Senegal after all.
The film works by incorporating both of these into its structure with equal significance. Anta has to come to terms with the reality that Paris may not be all that she fantasized it to be. (The scene on the ship with the French travelers is evocative of Godard, but there is a sting in it: the scene is used to scavenge the spectacle of French modernity by showing both its ironic appeal and its colonial tendencies in relief. Similarly, the scene in the stadium skewers the political sycophancy of Senegalese towards the French.)
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As for Mory, not going to Paris means staying connected to the roots he chose. It comes with its own set of disconcerting life events. The shared fantasies of the two characters depict a convergence of certain identity markers, while their divided loyalties show a divergence from the same. Each prioritizes certain key markers over others. The formal tactics of Touki Bouki – the jump cuts, the frantic motion, the calm narrative voice of a Varda with the chaotic foreground noise of a Godard – stand-in for the dissonant psyche of its setting and characters.
Anta and Mory contend themselves with the divided sense of living in two worlds, and not the least from each other. Their homosexual patron is shown in an unflattering light ; rich, cultured, and vapid. But it compels one to think: is his posh pharaoh lifestyle all that different from the fantasies and daydreams of Anta and Mory? Would he still cast an unpleasant shadow if his Xanadu, so to speak, were transported from Senegal to Europe? Where does “authenticity” of culture end and the vapidity begin? Is there a distinction anyway?
The film posits “authenticity” as a composite, always on-the-move. Juxtaposing French music and a cosmopolitan New Wave style on a scrubby Senegal terrain populated by exhausted toilers in the markets and countryside. By doing so, it destabilizes and complicates the ways of representation pertaining to a land and its people. Touki Bouki is channels the history of its subjects through a radical formal experimentation. In fact, it creates a mosaic subjectivity through its very form which seems to say; indeed, all of this might only be cinematic artifice. However, so is life in a palimpsest of cultural commerce and artifacts.
To conclude Touki Bouki …
The film promotes the chaos of inhabited feelings over the clarity of intelligible thoughts. The idea of choice in Touki Bouki is both individualistic and communal in nature, both voluntary and involuntary. It seems to suggest the factors that go into shaping the confused and self-assured postcolonial are too variegated and complex to demarcate into clearly recognizable categories. All one can aspire to is to replicate that provocative experience; through a radical convergence of forms rather than conventional storytelling. Mambéty abstains from wholly embracing either the established African cinematic conventions or an uncritical, fawning use of French New Wave. He chooses instead to distill a de-limiting way of being; while traversing the physical and mental limitations of one’s geographical and cultural landscape.