Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973) was the first encounter I’d ever had with African cinema, and he’s held a special place among my favorite directors ever since. His films are always so grounded in the world around them, yet also manage to be awash in an almost-hallucinogenic type of logic and vision. This ability to clash dreams and reality, hope and failure is on full display in his follow-up to Touki Bouki—and maybe my favorite film in his oeuvre—1992’s Hyènes (Hyenas).
The film was conceived as a kind of African-centric interpretation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s famous Swiss play, The Visit; but Mambéty’s film is centered around Linguere Ramatou, an extremely wealthy woman who,after many years abroad, returns to her home village of Colobane—the same area of Senegal from which Mambéty hails. Upon arriving, she offers the citizens of Colobane urban development and western goods, but only if they murder Dramaan Drameh, a local shopkeeper who left her alone and pregnant at 16.
Throughout the film, as we watch this community struggle with the moral choice of whether to take a life or continue slipping further and further into intense poverty and eventual starvation, viewers are given one of the most emotional, nuanced and intimate explorations of [neo]colonialism we’re likely to ever get. Jaw-dropping landscapes and color-soaked cinematography leads us to the film’s breathtaking ending in a way that’s guaranteed to leave viewers filled with awe.
Hyenas was created as a direct critique of the IMF and World Bank’s predatory loans to African nations. The filmmaker once famously said “we have sold our souls too cheaply. We are done for if we have traded our souls for money.” To further emphasize this film as continental, not only relevant to Senegal, Mambéty imported elephants from the Masai of Kenya and hyenas from Uganda, making sure that all the film’s actors were Senegalese; but this film’s concerns even manage to go beyond African borders. “To make it global,” Mambéty said in an interview, “we included scenes from the annual Carnival of Humanity of the French Communist Party in Paris,” and the film also includes a Japanese actress who “reads of the vanity of life, the vanity of vengeance” in one scene, showing that “everyone everywhere lives within a system of power that embraces the West.” In this way, what viewers are given is both a call to action and a kind of mourning.
This movie is a radical reminder that though many nations have managed to rid themselves of traditional colonialism, they still operate in a political and economic context that is determined and defined by imperial powers, by Western materialism corrupting native populations, turning neighbor against neighbor so that they never have to deploy a single troop but can still keep former colonies in their spheres of influence. It reminds me of the classic critique concerning freedom under capitalism: that the only freedom we’re ultimately given under this class system is the option to join the machine, or starve and resist. I think Mambéty’s work remains as relevant and powerful today as it did in three decades ago. Stream it while you can via Metrograph’s virtual cinema!