Since its inception, The Criterion Collection has become both preservationist and distributor of arthouse cinema (with a few exceptions for more populist material (what’s up, Armageddon?)). In keeping with this, they’ve partnered with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project on three volumes of films over the last few years, each one a collection from a variety of countries and years. For the first time since Volume 1’s release, the 1973 Senegalese Touki bouki (Journey of the Hyena) from director Djibril Diop Mambéty is offered on its own. The bulk of the special features appear to the be same as the prior release, but this iteration comes with new cover art, a new essay from critic Ashley Clark, and Mambéty’s short Contras’ Control.
Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang) are tired of life in Dakar, Senegal, and long to move to Paris, France. One problem: they can’t afford the journey. After a few false starts on some cons, the respective cow-herder and student come upon an opportunity that might just get them out of their destitute lives and into the glamour of Gay Paree. A mixture of brutal realism and the fantastical, Touki Bouki is a winding tale of rebellion and the fear of change.
Before diving into the film itself, it’s worth noting for new audiences less familiar with Touki Bouki that the naturalistic side of the tale does involve several instances of animal brutality in the form of animal slaughter, with a prolonged execution of a cow taking focus just after the start of the film. Given the larger theme of escape that propels the story, a feeling Mory and Anta have about dying having never left Dakar, the unflinching way in which Mambéty captures the herding, corralling, and eventual death of the cow at the start, certainly places a shroud over a largely light affair. Another word of caution is that much of Touki bouki is light in terms of narrative. It’s not that things don’t happen, it’s that sometimes things happen and end without acknowledgement. This is, perhaps, leaning into the postmodernism of cinema at the time, which subverted audience expectations by testing their suspension of disbelief via breaking conventions. Here, that means relying a little less on concreteness and more on conveying the emotion. It’s no coincidence that after the opening cow slaughter the audience meets Mory driving a motorbike with a cow’s skull attached to the front. Soon after we are introduced to Mory, he is attacked, accused of being a spy, and tied up in the back of a truck. With dust on his face and the skull hanging around his neck, he is akin to the cow on its way to its end. How he breaks free is uncertain as the next time we see him is a post-coital moment with Anta, a moment that is first introduced as grief, seeing as in the scene before she’s told that Mory’s been tossed into the sea. The combination of the extreme naturalism and the subversion make Touki bouki a little hard to cling to narratively, which seems to be part of Mambéty’s intent, not that he wants to alienate audiences, but to tell stories in a manner which shatters expectations and the conventions that created them. This will, even now, connect with some and not with others. There is no doubt, though, that Mambéty creates something truly unique and specific to Senegal.
For those wondering about the technical aspects of the release, the restoration was created in 2008 in partnership between The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and Cineteca di Bologna. They created a 2k resolution scan from the original 35mm camera and sound negatives provided by Mambéty’s son, Teemour Diop Mambéty. The restoration process allowed for a new 35mm internegative for long-term preservation as a replacement for the original. On disc, the film maintains its original 1:37:1 aspect ratio and an uncompressed soundtrack. While the elements aren’t restored to the point of seeming modern, the visual and auditory elements are pristine and clear. Especially as Mambéty like to use sound disconnected to the images he displays or as a precursor to upcoming moments, the balance of sound is particularly important in making the visual elements engrossing, the only elements of age being that the film was released nearly 50 years ago. Where some restorations or remasters make an older feel present as new (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) with minimal artifacting, the presence of aging here is a lovely part of the package, something which is only accentuated by certain narrative elements (like the snooty immigrant teachers espousing their disdain for the country they work in) which deserve to be left in the past, or the way Mambéty explores colonialism by way of the two versons of Dakar: those entrenched in converting Senegal into a visitor’s paradise and those content with the ways of their forefathers. In this regard, Touki bouki meets the exact standards for a Criterion release: preservation of art worth examining.
Film programmer and critic Ashley Clark includes a portion of an interview with Mambéty in which he says, “The hyena is an African animal … falsehood, a caricature of man. The hyena comes out only at night, he is afraid of daylight, like the hero of Touki bouki …” Mory, more than Ante, schemes and plots, constantly trying to find ways to find the funds to escape Dakar, a place they feel is too weighed down by tradition, rejecting their fate to never rise above the squalor of their lives. Mory is the hyena here, unashamed to try to con conmen, willing to try his luck at anything that might result in fortune. Yet, when the time comes to really commit, when faced with the opportunity to take what he wants, he falters, “afraid of daylight” and what those steps toward achieving their shared dream could mean. In this way, Mambéty’s attempt to make a fable in keeping with the oral traditions of his home is a success.
Touki bouki Special Features
- 2K digital transfer, restored by the Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in association with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and the family of director Djibril Diop Mambéty, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Introduction from 2013 by The Film Foundation’s founder and chair, Martin Scorsese
- Interview from 2013 with filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako
- Interview program from 2012 featuring musician Wasis Diop and filmmaker Mati Diop, Mambéty’s brother and niece, respectively
- Contras’ City, a 1968 short film by Mambéty, in a new 4K restoration by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and the Cineteca di Bologna
- PLUS: An essay by film programmer and critic Ashley Clark
- New cover by Slang Inc
Available on Blu-ray and DVD via The Criterion Collection on March 9th, 2021.
Also available as part of The Criterion Collection’s six-disc Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, Vol 1 release.