Touki Bouki (1973)
Dir. Djibril Diop Mambéty
Martin Scorsese watches an incredible amount of films. I am thankful for this. The man has an impossibly important legacy, but honestly, at this point, I’m starting to appreciate his love and knowledge of cinema almost more than his films themselves. He seemingly turns up on one obscure masterpiece after another telling me how he watched this in a darkened apartment in New York with Robbie Robertson in 1974, and it changed his life forever. He’s very emphatic, you see, and his taste is unparalleled. He now has found an even better outlet for this in creating the World Cinema Foundation, which specializes in restoring films that are rapidly becoming dangerously close to being lost forever.
The film in question here is Touki Bouki, a film from Senegal (yeah that’s right, when was the last time you watched one of those?) that takes its cues heavily from the French New Wave. The film feels like a Godard on the surface, but this is certainly a film about motion. In fact, the only real comparison I can make to the fluidity of the camera in this film is in the work of Mikhael Kalatozov (I Am Cuba, The Cranes Are Flying). The way Mambéty moves his camera sweeps you into these streets of impoverished Senegal quite literally, often riding on the back of a small motorcycle the protagonist is constantly riding. He even takes a great deal of time shooting directly behind his actor’s shoulder , making the journey feel that much more like an avant-garde documentary.
In fact, much of this film is clearly a documentary. You’ll happen to agree, that is, if you can get past the footage of the brutal slaughtering of oxen in a real slaughterhouse. The camera lingers over extended shots of throat slitting and the gushing arterial blood that follows. This is not a film that apologizes. It’s not for shock, nor is it even slightly cautioned at. It’s there, and it’s an intrinsic part of their lives, and he’s choosing to show just that.
The actors in this film are clearly amateur, which is hardly apologized for either. In fact, I have a certain soft spot for this kind of acting, one that mixes over-the-top with almost too subdued. It really happens to supplement the visuals quite well, not unlike, say, a Bresson film, or even as previously noted, The Girlfriend Experience. There’s one knife-wielding actress in particular that provides a display of over-the-top so inspired it nearly puts Hopper and Glover to shame. (Side note and fun conversation stimulant: Does she not remind you of Eddie Marsen’s performance in The New World just a little bit? Particularly when he threateningly addresses the camera? I’m anxiously waiting for all two of you to respond.)
Touki Bouki is not a masterpiece, however. It’s an incredibly well-realized piece of avant-garde filmmaking, but like much of the New Wave, the ideas can come up short from time to time. There are some scenes of questionable length, including one in particular featuring an embarrassingly stereotypical homosexual character that simply does not cease. In the end though, the emotional impact is slighted due to the trappings of the avant-garde filmmaking it aspires to be. Any time it shows warmth, it tends to retreat back into abstraction. Honestly, I might be hoping for something that could very well be besides the point in a film like this. It’s why I’ve always preferred a Malle or Bergman over a Godard. Regardless, this is a fascinating piece of filmmaking, one that is the rarest of rare; a truly unique imprint of a culture we almost never get a chance to witness.
Besides, if nothing else, you can tell everyone you watched a film from Senegal. That could get you laid. Or it could at least work as a definitive slogan highlighting you’re cultured and intellectual side. Man, I can taste the profits now. My own line of “I Watched a Film From Senegal” t-shirts. I’ll live like a king, and miss the point of this film entirely. There’s the American dream.
(Touki Bouki is available online for free until August on The Auteurs. Sign up on this website; it’s one of the more remarkable ones I’ve seen lately. Hint: Criterion even puts up a few selections from the collection every month for free. I’m sure you’ll be seeing plenty of entries due to that.)