Touki Bouki Review

AKA: Journey of the Hyena
Genre: Experimental/Drama/Adventure
Year Released: 1973
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Origin: Senegal
Running Time: 90 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 17+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Touki Bouki is such a unique movie, that I can’t think of direct comparisons with its atypical avant-garde presentation.
Notes: N/A
Fun Facts:
-Touki Bouki is the debut full-length film and 3rd film overall directed by the late Djibril Diop Mambety. He has also created Contras’city, Hyenas, and Badou Boy among other films. Mambety never had any film production or editing training throughout his life which you wouldn’t know unless I told you.

-This film was restored through The Film Foundation when it was re-released through The Criterion Collection. Do you want to know who is the founder of that organization and one of the main guys who handpicked this restoration effort? Martin Scorsese! This guy knows about stuff outside of the Hollywood sphere, you know.

-Culture Bonus/Mythology Bonus: The title alludes to a Senegalese folk character Bouki who is a hyena. The character played a trickster archetype before that role went to the hare. Also, that fictional hyena would be imported in both Louisiana Creole and Haitian folktales which really shows the lineage of Senegalese (let alone West African) culture being present in the African diaspora involving the Americas.

-Music Bonus: One of the recurring songs used was “Paris, Paris, Paris” whenever the two main characters fantasize about moving to France. That was sung by St. Louis-born, Paris-immigrated singer/dancer/actress Josephine Baker. During her lifetime, she refused to play to segregated audiences to protest for Civil Rights. In the year 2021, she became the first Black woman to be entered into the Pantheon which is reserved for French national heroes. Keep in mind that Baker was an American and didn’t move to France until she would’ve been in her 30s at the time.

-4th Wall Breaking: Djibril Diop Mambety’s name is mentioned in passing by a couple of the characters including Charlie when he calls the cops and asks for Inspector Mambety. Close to the time Touki Bouki was filmed, Mambety was arrested for the crime against humanity of…joining anti-racist protests in Rome, but he was freed by members of the Italian Communist Party. During the boat scene with the rude French expats/vacationers, you have a few of them trash-talking the ICM in passing while also verbally bashing Senegalese culture. Wow, that dialogue really puts things into perspective and adds to the subtle anti-colonialist themes.

-Touki Bouki is the first fictional narrative film to show Laamb wrestling which is the national martial art of Senegal. This would also make it the 2nd film I’ve covered that featured that style of fighting alongside the short documentary of Senegal’s Warrior Cop.

-Aunt Omy was played by Aminata Fall. She’s more famous as an author and is the first published female writer from Francophone Africa. Her bibliography includes Le Revenant, La Greve des Battu, and The Call of the Arena. Fall is originally from Saint-Louis, Senegal (no, not the city in Missouri).

-This won two awards during its debuting year: the Cannes International Critics Award and the Moscow Film Festival Special Jury Award.

Looks like I’m checking out Senegal’s movie scene again and it doesn’t involve Ousmane Sembene this time (I still like the director’s work from what I’ve seen so far). What did surprise me is that The Criterion Collection released a DVD of something from a filmmaker I have never heard of. This was quite intriguing when I was going over their film catalog while I had plans to use a TCC online gift certificate one of my friends gave me for my birthday. I took a chance and ordered this DVD to expand my collection while also giving me some material to review. Yes, I’ve been on an African film kick for a couple of years now, so I got a chance to make that interest grow.

Ousmane Sembene can’t hold Senegal’s film legacy alone, so it was about time to check out the works of another late director from that nation.

Touki Bouki takes place in Senegal’s capital and largest city of Dakar. After a decade since independence, some people have been disillusioned from being free from French colonial rule. Poverty still exists and other opportunities didn’t seem as grand as what people have hoped to be. A rambunctious couple in their early 20s wants to change that. There’s the rebellious cowherd Mory who drives around with a motorcycle sporting a bull skull on the hood. He’s been facing a lot of debt and is seen as a rapscallion. His girlfriend is Anta who is enrolled as a university student who is sick of living in Dakar and deals with harassing “revolutionaries” who give so many people a hard time. After they assault her boyfriend, they escape to the beach and scheme a grand plan on succeeding. First, they have to get a good amount of money. Secondly, they plan on getting out of this town (if you call Dakar a town that is) in an epic fashion and with more initiative than the pop-punk bands who whine about doing so in their music. Thirdly, they want to get a boat straight to France to get rich while also sending money to their families and for Mory to pay off his debts. Their plan involves shadiness like stealing money and various profitable items to escape Senegal. Things go up and down as they travel around for this plan in the skull-adorned motorcycle as they go to various markets, the local wrestling stadium, and extort some wealthier people in the Paris of Africa, so they can get to the real-life Paris. This journey gets dubious, yet surreal as they try to succeed.

This was certainly a trip to watch this particular movie. I was a bit giddy seeing an avant-garde work this soon which I felt like I haven’t done in a while and I wondered if people would question my tastes by not doing so for this long. If you also think that Africans, let alone Black people can’t make an avant-garde or arthouse movie, then I’ll be nice enough to say please slap yourself. This was very creative in its presentation. I didn’t know Djibril Diop Mambety had no film training until after I watched this film which fooled me. This is coming from a guy who has a film production background as part of my Bachelor’s degree and briefly taught videography in a summer camp. Keep in mind, Mambety was using real film instead of digital software or CGI. There are creative montages and unconventional editing techniques with long takes, neorealism, and abstract b-roll in regards to whatever is happening. Even the sound design was quirky with the mix between traditional Senegalese music, French popular songs, and even a sound collage that sounded like musique concrete at times. I found out that there was a bit of French New Wave influence, but this felt like an inversion to feel African instead of copying cinematic tropes involving that regional film scene that came from the late 50s and 60s. Also, this was only made with $30K with part of it coming from the Senegalese government itself and not as a co-production (it would’ve been from France, let’s be honest if you know anything about the geopolitics of the country). The main characters do have enough personality for me to be invested even if they have dubious means to get that money. It was funny how they were trying to come up with these plans and surprisingly succeed such as grabbing a chest full of money and at one point stealing an entire wardrobe. This could have been some artsy, yet wacky dark crime comedy, but there was a good amount of social commentary done in a subtle way. There are the wealthier Senegalese living in luxury while speaking in French way more than Wolof, the couple imagining themselves having a royal motorcade in the streets of Dakar, a Tarzan-looking guy crowing at the birds (is it weird that I half expected “Tarzan Boy” by Baltimora to play when he showed up?), and the French passengers of the boat making disparaging comments to show that France isn’t what it seems. Sure, this criticism has been done in Black Girl years before Touki Bouki came out, but this had a different twist with that scene. The white tourists and expats straight-up dog whistle the crap out of Senegal by calling the locals “barren intellectuals” or how African art had no value except for desperate journalists instead of just using the N-word or making overt comments. Going back to that African art line, all I have to say is Au Contraire, Monsieur! You’ve got European countries with artifacts that are influenced by art from the continent which is still there in museums or private collections, let alone how there was an African antecedent culture millennia ago (shout out to Dr. Marie Charles for her research with these artifacts, symbols, and linguistic etymologies!). Mambety definitely has a sense of abstractness without going overboard while avoiding didactic narratives like how there are multiple scenes with long periods with no dialogue. That was a good choice and the experimentation really made me fascinated with Touki Bouki’s presentation and storytelling.

Touki Bouki gets spotty at times in the film (hyena pun intended). While I appreciated the experimental editing and presentation, some experiments didn’t work as well. The sound design with the vulture felt unintentionally incongruous and creepy. They must have mixed a vulture’s call with some sound effects that made it sound possessed by an eldritch abomination which got very unnerving than what was intended. I know this is a recurring observation, but there is Unintentional Period Piece Syndrome. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go on the “payphone rant”, but this was clearly made in the 70s with the cars, technology, some music, and especially fashion. Even in Africa, you had people rocking bell bottom pants which was a dead giveaway. I could see people taking umbrage with the Charlie character with how he’s presented. The character is a flaming gay person, let’s be real here. The way he gets touchy-feely with Mory, wants him to get in the shower to scrub his back, talks in an effeminate way (even if you don’t know French or Wolof, you can still notice that with his inflections), and he calls himself the biggest mother…hen of his mansion. That Chicago reference was oddly necessary for some odd reason. Shoot, Charlie even drives away Anta (Mory’s own girlfriend, mind you) in his pool by comparing her and women to goats “among hens”. Since there was a pool party, he might as well have called her a fish like the guys from In Living Color’s “Men on Film” skits. I’m actually surprised Touki Bouki didn’t get banned in Senegal for having a homosexual character given how LGBT orientations are taboo and illegal in that country even now, but Camp de Thiaroye was temporarily banned in the same nation despite it being based on a real-life tragedy where Senegalese and other Africans were legitimately VICTIMS of white supremacists in the French Army during WWII. Seriously, let that fact marinate in your brain. I don’t want to sound wimpy when pointing out this shortcoming, but Touki Bouki did get excessive at times. The sexual aspects involving the nudity early in the film was one thing, but the thing that went overboard was the montage involving Mony’s day job of being a cowherd. By that, I mean these aren’t dairy cows, but beef cows, and a slaughterhouse gets involved. You see the cows drenched in a crimson room not even five minutes into the film and it was disgusting. There was a scene later on where Aunt Oumy slits a goat’s throat. I have never seen so much blood at once and it wasn’t a horror or ultraviolence movie. I can watch people killing each other in gory fashions like Battle Royale or Texhnolyze, and I’m barely even fazed, but seeing this much carnage with the animals getting butchered was nasty. It wouldn’t surprise me if people become vegetarian or vegan after seeing this much blood and killing in the slaughterhouse scene that would make Freddy Kruger puke his guts out. I would have rated this higher if there wasn’t much excess in certain scenes.

This was a quality pick from The Criterion Collection and a welcome surprise. This Senegalese arthouse film did a great job of critiquing colonialism in a witty and darkly humorous way. The acting was good and the presentation was even better with its sheer creativity. However, there are times when it goes a bit too far with the production and certain characters in the story. Touki Bouki isn’t for everyone, but the positives should be noted and it could be fun to destroy people’s preconceptions that there aren’t any African avant-garde films. I would recommend this one to more adventurous film buffs.

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1 point if you like movies with anti-colonial themes.
-Add 1 point if you really like arthouse/avant-garde movies.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer movies with higher budgets.
-Subtract 1-3 points if you want your movies to explain everything to you.

-Unique neorealism/arthouse hybrid production
-Adept anti-colonial and anti-racist themes that are subtle
-The dark comedy and satire are biting, yet effective

-Some production choices get too bizarre
-Charlie’s character will raise eyebrows
-The slaughterhouse imagery gets way too gory for a movie like this

Final Score: 8/10 points

Content Advisory: Touki Bouki is absolutely not for kids. The language is very strong in both Wolof and French (the first piece of dialogue is “Oh, s***”) and there’s a surprising amount of innuendo at times with Charlie being the biggest offender. The sexual content is R-rated with Anta’s breasts being naked more than once and there’s an abstract sex scene where the action isn’t shown, but it’s a montage of waves crashing on the beach (visual double entendre!), her hand clutching Mory’s motorcycle while she’s revving up his metaphorical engine, and her breathing getting very heavy and quick as the waves get bigger in the assemblage of film. Mony even gets naked at one point and you do see his butt while he’s celebrating in a stolen car. Charlie is an openly gay man who is WAYYYYY too interested in Mony by getting too close to him and asking him to wash him in the shower (saying nothing about his comments about his previous lovers in France) before Mony steals his clothes for money when he’s in said shower. There is some violence and someone is a victim in a motorcycle crash, but the human blood is minuscule compared to cows and a goat getting killed. That slaughterhouse in the beginning would put horror movies to shame with how scarlet the floor and walls are. Yes, you see the animals get stabbed and skinned in full view. Please don’t eat anything while watching this movie. Of course, there are themes of anti-colonialism and racism where the former themes could fly over some people’s heads.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Touki Bouki is the property of The Criterion Collection. The DVD cover is from Video Librarian and is the property of The Criterion Collection.

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