Cinema isn’t about you; it’s about the world around you. Take the 1973 Senegalese film, Touki Bouki, from the great Djibril Diop Mambéty. Using an impressionistic editing style, Touki Bouki is a simple story of lovers on the run, told in a manner that is anything but simple, yet remains perfectly clear. It’s familiar, in a way, and completely alien in another. It’s as if the images were beamed from a distant past or the near future. Anyway, you slice it, Touki Bouki is a true masterpiece.
But nothing is without precedent. Under colonial rule, Africans could make movies; they just couldn’t depict everyday African life. But once Senegal declared independence in 1960, out went the handcuffs. Ousmane Sembène set the stage three years later with Borom Sarret (The Wagoner), a short film about an impoverished cart driver working the Flats (the poor part of town) until a wealthy man coaxes him for a ride to the Plateau (the lasting vestiges of European colonization). The Plateau is where no carts go, but the customer is persuasive. Too persuasive, and the wagoner is stopped in the Plateau. He loses his cart and returns home, another day wasted, with nothing to show for it. His wife hands him the baby and heads back to the street to start hooking again.
It’s an understatement to say Borom Sarret wouldn’t have been made and released three years prior. But the rules were new, and Borom Sarret announced Senegalese films to the world stage. Many call Sembène the father of African cinema. Ten years later, Mambéty picked up the torch and ran with it. Like Borom Sarret, Touki Bouki uses geography to depict the divide between the haves and the have nots. But Mambéty’s storytelling is looser, less rooted in the obvious and more concerned with impressions. The main character, Mory (Magaye Niang), is a cowherd who drives a motorcycle with a bull’s skull mounted on the handlebars. It’s his identity, and for Mambéty, it’s Africa. When Mory abandons it, things go south fast. A cow is slaughtered, a bike is destroyed, and Mory is left out on his ass, watching his dreams slip farther and farther away.
Touki Bouki is a dazzling and hypnotic piece of work. Years ago, I watched the movie during a bus ride on my computer. It was dark, and the screen enchanted my seatmate. Though she couldn’t hear a word (I was wearing headphones), she couldn’t stop watching. Even as her friends badgered her about what they were going that night (they were ready for a night on the town), she seemed disappointed when her stop arrived, and had to leave. Such is the allure of the image, no matter how grotesque it is, or how disconnected it appears, its call cannot be ignored.