Certainly the least seen film in Sight & Sound’s most recent poll of the greatest films of all time, Touki Bouki, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s directorial debut is tied for 93rd with Un Chien Andalou, The Seventh Seal, and Yi Yi, among others. The film borrows heavily from the early works of Jean-Luc Godard in its editing patterns, and even its narrative, about a motorcycle driving cowherd named Mory (Magaye Niang) a and student named Anta (Mareme Niang) looking to escape Dakar for France, is a politicized spin on Breathless.
It’s quite easy to look at all that Touki Bouki borrows; in addition to its French New Wave influences, one could examine how Eisenstein’s montage theory manifests itself in Mambéty film, but it innovated as much as it borrowed. By all accounts, Touki Bouki was without precedent in West African Cinema, and the juxtaposition of slaughtering animals with being isolated from freedom is the same trick Charles Burnett would pull with Killer of Sheep. Likewise, it’s hard to think of a film with fantasy sequences as bold and significant as those that make up much of Touki Bouki.
The narrative is potent enough on its own. Two people struggle to gain freedom, largely because society insists they already have it. Mory refuses to pay a gambler on one occasion and steals money, food, and clothes in three other incidents. There is little doubt that Mory realizes that what he is doing wrong, as everyone else, including Anta, constantly remind him, but he also knows that making it to France won’t be possible if he sticks too closely to his ethics. Mory, like all his countrymen, is stuck between the promise of French modernity and the independence that the historically tribal society offers them; colonialism, however, denies the advantages of both. Mory’s motorcycle is mounted with a steer’s skull, a constant reminder of the split identity of the Senegalese people.
But what elevates Touki Bouki more than anything is its use of sound. At the film’s beginning, the peaceful sounds of a flute are juxtaposed with the harsh noises that accompany a slaughtering, signifying the polarized local life. But as the narrative starts to take over and Mory and Anta dream of escaping to France, both sounds begin to collide with the natural sounds of the ocean, as when the sound of a cow is transformed seamlessly into a ship’s horn, promising escape. As the fantasy takes over, traditional African music is pitted against European pop, and the stark difference in sound serves as a constant reminder of the differences between Dakar and Paris. Elsewhere, a woman’s laughter is equated with vultures.
Even as the narrative wavers—and it often does—the use of sound makes the politics overt and complex. While Ousmane Sembène had already made a number of films about the split identity of the Senegalese, his primary weapon was his naturalistic narrative and his tendency to subvert expectations. Mambéty relies more on editing, both visual and aural, which allows him to keep the film on the rails even as the storytelling threatens to derail. Even if you went into Touki Bouki knowing nothing about the relevant politics, the dialogue lays out the foundation and collision montage does the rest.