Tag Archives: Colonialism

CAPSULE: TOUKI BOUKI (1973)

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DIRECTED BY: Djibril Diop Mambéty

FEATURING: Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang

PLOT: A young misfit and his girlfriend take off for Paris, committing a series of petty thefts on the way to fund their trip.

COMMENTS: This landmark film from Senegal, newly released by the Criterion Collection in a stunning HD restoration, begins with cowherds leading their flock through the pasture. An idyllic scene, but it soon turns dark… dark red, to be exact. The cows are on their way to be slaughtered—a scene that we are made to witness in all its gory detail. As the blood splatters and covers the slaughterhouse floor, the screen turns a sickening red usually reserved for grimy 1970s pseudo-snuff films. Although we never learn the exact circumstances, it’s a memory burned onto the protagonist’s psyche that will be recalled later at a crucial moment.

The central story of Touki Bouki is straight out of films like Breathless and Pierrot le Fou. Rebel without a cause Mory decides to shake off the dregs of Dakar and head north to Paris with his girlfriend Anta, first setting off on a carefree crime spree to raise the funds. But director Djibril Diop Mambety isn’t just a stylist looking to transplant French cinema into an African setting. After all, Senegal had only recently gained their independence from France at the time this film was made. There’s a sarcastic edge to much of the self-conscious French New Wave flourishes, like the song on the radio incessantly crooning “Paris, Paris, Paris,” and jokes at the expense of those who have sold themselves out to the new neo-colonial order.

Even so, Touki Bouki isn’t a political film, either. Although he didn’t have any formal film school training, Mambety had a knack for visual poetry, observing his surroundings and making evocative connections without the need to impose any explicit political ideology on top of it. For example, in another graphic scene not suitable for the squeamish, a goat is slaughtered—likely for sacrificial purposes. A woman takes off her coat, revealing nothing underneath. An inverted cross-like ornament glimmers in the hot desert sun. Waves crash beneath the edge of a cliff. There is a feeling of mystery, danger, and desperation. Mambety doesn’t feel the need to explain, distilling his imagery into poetry–conveying life as a waking dream not easily understood.

As the story begins to unfold, these dreamlike qualities take over. Mory and Anta embark on a road to nowhere, committing petty crimes and entertaining imaginary admirers. A deranged Tarzan disciple, one of the few white people in the film, is seen caterwauling at birds in a tree, only to come down and steal Mory’s motorcycle. Mory and Anta are able to steal a huge amount of money from a tribal benefit to support the building of a monument for Charles de Gaulle, right from under the eyes of the police officer in charge of guarding it. We don’t see the crime itself, only the lovers’ triumphant escape with a gigantic trunk full of cash. Later, Mory steals an entire wardrobe’s worth of clothing from a gay playboy’s mansion, as a decadent party goes on outside.

The line between the real world and the lovers’ fantasy world is always blurred. Memories collide with the present, and time is all but nonexistent. When Mory finally has his chance to leave Senegal, Mambety uses an allegorical montage to signal his change of heart, a stunning moment of free-flowing visual poetry that leads into an impressionistic dream sequence to end the film. Mambety’s vision is vivid and defiant, integrating French influence into a framework that is proudly African, with logic-defying montage and cinematography so vivid and striking that it threatens to explode right off the screen.

Even for those who have seen Touki Bouki before, Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release upgrades the experience. Along with a vivid 2K restoration of the film itself, there are interviews with admirers such as and Abderrahmane Sissako, as well as Mambety’s brother, Wasis Diop, who worked on the production. But the biggest revelation here is Contras’ City, Mambety’s debut short film from 1968. A feverish tour through the city of Dakar, this tongue-in-cheek city symphony explores the clash between different cultures and religions. There are soaring views of architecture, occasional moments of harsh realism, but always laced with the sharp sarcastic edge that also defines Touki Bouki.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the greatest of all African films and almost certainly the most experimental. – Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

274. NUIT NOIRE [BLACK NIGHT] (2005)

“Often when we go to the cinema we feel like we’re being taken for fools because things we have instantly understood are laboriously explained. Here it’s a little the other way round.”–Olivier Smolders

Weirdest!

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Olivier Smolders

FEATURING: Fabrice Rodriguez, Yves-Marie Gnahoua, Iris Debusschere

PLOT: A solitary entomologist works at a natural history museum in a world where it is only light for fifteen seconds a day. One day, he comes home to his empty apartment and discovers an African woman sleeping in his bed. She is ill and pregnant and eventually dies, leaving him to deal with the body.

Still from Nuit Noire (2005)

BACKGROUND:

  • Olivier Smolders was born in the Congo, which explains the source of the film’s African imagery.
  • A prolific short film maker, Nuit Noire is Smolders’ only feature film to date.
  • The movie received a very limited theatrical release even in its native Belgium, and did not appear in U.S. theaters (outside of a few film festivals) at all. Little has been written about Nuite Noir in the English language (an only a little more in French).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The African woman’s dead body turning into a pupae, then splitting open as a new life emerges.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: 15 seconds of sun; elephant in the alley; African corpse cocooning

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world of eternal midnight, with troubled dreams of dead children and troubling realities of sick foreign women who mysteriously show up in your bed, Nuit Noire manipulates time and concepts in ways that only film can. One woman changes into another, and then into another. This story could not take place in the light of day.

Short clip from Nuit Noire

COMMENTS: Closeups of squirming bugs a la Blue Velvet. A reserved protagonist taking care of a sick charge in his isolated apartment a la Eraserhead. Billowing red curtains a la… every Continue reading 274. NUIT NOIRE [BLACK NIGHT] (2005)

CAPSULE: EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015)

El Abrazo de la Serpiente

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ciro Guerra

FEATURING: Antonio Bolivar, Nilbio Torres, , Brionne Davis

PLOT: In two journeys separated by decades, an Amazonian hermit and shaman reluctantly guides two European scientists on trips to find a legendary medicinal plant.

Still from Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s too weird to win an Academy Award, but not weird enough for us. Still, fans of s Amazonian epics and Apocalypse Now will find a lot to connect with here, while Embrace retains its own feverish flavor.

COMMENTS: As cinema’s first black and white arthouse ethnobotany trip movie, Embrace of the Serpent is a singular event. More based on setting than plot, the languid, reflective trip upriver may grow wearisome for some, but will reward the patient. The emerald Amazon jungle is subsumed into a grayscale haze, making the trip seem both like a vintage period picture and a dream.

One of the Embrace‘s biggest strengths is that it generally steers away from the lectern, instead delivering an eye-level view of a historic culture clash. We see that the Amazonian tribes aren’t inherently virtuous, but can be just as petty, selfish and inhospitable as their white brethren. The examination of the effect of European ideas (aside from the obvious evils like slavery) on the Amazonian natives is nuanced. European Theo argues the tribes should not have a compass because he believes that access to such easy technology will cause their indigenous methods of orientation using astronomy and knowledge of the winds to fade away. His guide Karamakate, who otherwise hates white culture precisely for its capacity to displace his own, unexpectedly makes the cosmopolitan argument that “knowledge belongs to all men.” The compass debate reveals a more complicated analysis than the simple “brown man good, white man bad” anti-colonial dogmatism you might have feared. Karamakate, too, is far from a simplistic noble savage; he can be peevish, manipulative, and bigoted in his own way. Karamakate is far more noble for the flaws that make him into more than a mere symbol or stereotype.

The tone is quiet, melancholy, and mystical. The older Karamakate complains of having become a “chullachaqui,” a sort of shell or wraith, a doppelganger stripped of vitality, memory and purpose. Those looking for surreal thrills will want to pay attention to the two stops at a mission along the way. The earlier expedition is reluctantly hosted at a remote Christian outpost where a single surviving priest oversees a colony of Amazonian orphans. When they return decades later, the mission has devolved into a strange and anarchic cult blending native beliefs with Christian ones. This imaginary sociological experiment is so intoxicating that you may wish the entire movie had been built around this location. The film finishes with a somewhat superfluous color hallucination sequence full of geometric fractals and jaguars that plays either like a more sedate version of Altered States‘s mushroom trips, or like 2001‘s climax with an ecological spin.

The plant the European scientists seek, yakruna, is known by the Latin name “Macguffinus plotdevicis.” It becomes whatever the story needs it to be at the time: a mind-expanding psychedelic, a panacea for ills of both the body and soul, a symbol of Karamakate’s tribal identity. It’s “the stuff that dreams are made of,” and by the end it goes up in smoke, becoming not much of anything at all. Embrace is a leisurely trip downriver towards a muddy allegory, but there are moments when you feel like Col. Kurtz is waiting just around the next bend.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Filled with dream imagery, never-quite-explained symbolism, and a collection of weird (and inhospitable) characters that might have emerged from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust or the more feverish fever dreams of Werner Herzog — with more than a little of Mr. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now around the edges.”–Ken Hanke, Mountain XPress (contemporaneous)