Screening January 25 at L’Etage
by Jake Lemkowitz
Touki Bouki was conceived at the time of a very violent crisis in my life. I wanted to make a lot of things explode. – Djibril Diop Mambety
In 1973, Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety put French New Wave filmmaking techniques, nonlinear West African storytelling, and post-colonial politics together in a blender. What emerged was Touki Bouki.
It is a simple picaresque adventure story – think Bonnie and Clyde in Dakar – albeit one that is told in a completely different language. Yes, there are subtitles for the dialogue. Nonetheless, the film’s encrypted narrative unfolds as a code of symbols. Light shimmering through water in a plastic bucket; the horns of a zebu; ritual slaughter; a bag of amulets in a river: images like these are the true language of Touki Bouki.
The average American viewer, lacking an intimate familiarity with Senegalese culture, is left without an interpreter; but like any good Tumblr blog, the film’s disparate images gain power and meaning as they accrue. While Touki Bouki can be disorienting and disjointed, the visual aesthetic makes it a tremendously engaging movie to watch, even out of context. The style is dope, embodied by characters wearing head wraps, ski caps, and sunglasses. The palette is warm and dense with sea foam blues and blood reds. And the film is chock-a-block with interesting modern/traditional hybridity, like the sound of an airplane over a Muezzein’s call to prayer, and a Tuareg cross on a motorcycle.
Forty years after its release, Touki Bouki’s greatest achievement may be that it still feels subversive. The movie’s precarious structure and outright rejection of film norms are formally seditious. And its story highlights an inflammatory question that remains relevant today: how do we attain freedom, when everyone insists we already have it? Though it presents no answers, the film’s distinctive imagery is more than enough to make up for its ambiguity.
Cinématèque Internationale of Philadelphia is screening Touki Bouki on Wednesday, January 25th at L’Etage, 624 South 6th Street. Doors open at 6:30pm, the film begins at 7:00pm, and a discussion will follow. $10.
Jake Lemkowitz is a Philadelphia-based writer and pizza aficionado. He has an MFA from Brooklyn College, and his home on the internet is Bread City Basketball.