Two university students, Mory and Anta, find themselves disaffected by life in their native Senegal. They conspire to move to Paris where they believe all their dreams will come true; where they can one day return to Senegal in all their Westernised glory as prodigal children.
There’s a definite reverence for the ‘civilised’ west, or to be more accurate: a mocking of that reverence. Mory reasons that they simply need a bit of money and some nice clothes, to pay the right people at the ideal time, to make it onto a ship heading to France. A Godard-esque sequence has both characters riding in a procession through an impoverished village as they comically wave to the fawning public, who cheer two people as royalty without knowing a thing about them, except that they must be of the upper class and possibly of some importance.
It is admittedly shameful – though Scorsese in his introduction of the film admits it is a position many people find themselves in – that this is my first African film not directed by Sembene. The energy with which Mambéty directs Touki Bouki only heightens the ignominy; colours pop (aided by an astounding restoration) and a part of the world I am not immediately familiar with comes to life. Mambéty instills a playful joviality in Mory and Anta’s antics. I’ve said Godard-esque before, but it really does conjure memories of Pierrot le Fou at times.
Ostensibly a comedy, Mambéty does hint almost immediately that an emotional gut punch at some point is inevitable. The scenes of animal slaughter are almost impossible to watch – the mental gymnastics required to justify such scenes is difficult. And Touki Bouki hits a low point with the introduction of a character who is an outrageous homosexual stereotype. Not irredeemable by itself (Western cinema would not be able to throw stones from within their glass houses), but this caricature of a gay man marries together gross wealth of the elite with ‘perverse’ sexuality (the man in question has an affinity for ‘helping’ young boys). In stark contrast to the more idealised heterosexual companionship enjoyed by Mory and Anta, who just happen to occupy the lower working class.
Despite its contextual shortcomings, Touki Bouki is a film of restless energy and spirit that comes with it a sorrow at the potential falsity of trying to escape your past. Joséphine Baker’s ‘Paris, Paris, Paris’ loops intermittently throughout Touki Bouki – entering, exiting and re-entering but never quite advancing beyond its chorus. It becomes depressingly clear that Paris is to remain out of reach for Mory and Anta. (7)