Sunday, October 12, 2008
Yesterday I went to the BFI screening of Hyenas, a film by the late Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety. I've seen and written about some of his other films - my favourite is Touki Bouki - but Hyenas is notoriously difficult to get hold of so I was thrilled to be able to see it on the big screen.
It's a fabulous film. Made in 1992, it was conceived as a follow-up from Touki Bouki, (which translates as The Journey of the Hyena ), made two decades before. Both films portray human greed and corruption in a highly coded film style, complex and often humorous. The story of Hyenas unfolds in a Senegalese village called Colobane. At the beginning of the film, the town's grocer, Dramaan Drameh, is paid a visit from the past - the woman he'd rejected as a potential wife in favour of someone richer, has returned, years later. Her name is Linguère Ramatou and she's far more wealthy than anyone could have imagined. She also has her mind firmly set on revenge. Mambety based the film on a Swiss play by Dürenmatt, called The Visit (1956). The film works on many levels, functioning as an allegory of the 'postcolonial' or 'neo-colonial' predicament, but also commenting on human society in general, and the way money and power go hand in hand.
It's not all doom and gloom, though: Mambety's films are always polyphonic, filled with colour and energy, highlighting potentials for good (singing, dancing, bright colours evoke a passion for life), whilst simultaneously depicting wickedness and cruelty (Dramaan's customers refuse to pay upfront for their purchases, but parade around in brand new boots from Burkina Faso). The landscape, people, costumes and animal imagery Mambety employs are all African, but the message isn't specific to Africa, it's relevant to us all. The key motto is spoken by the decrepit Linguère Ramatou: "The world turnerd me into a whore. I'll turn the world into a brothel". She executes her revenge plan, but in the end, who do we feel sorry for? As ever, Mambety blames everyone and no one, and there are more questions than answers.
After the screening, we were treated to a lively debate, led by Colin Prescod, Chair of the Institute of Race Relations. He provided an insightful commentary on the film, and then other audience members chipped in with their reactions and thoughts. It gave us all a chance to think more carefully about the different layers of meaning Mambety weaves into his story.
The film's penultimate image shows a desolate, muddy plane ridged with fresh tractor marks - a community 'flattened' by the will of one person in power. But on the horizon there's a baobab tree, deathly looking with its roots hanging like a skeleton, yet resolutely alive, fixed at the centre of the frame. Is this a vision of hope? Or does it suggest that greed and corruption will 'grow again', the cycle of corruption repeating itself? The film begins and ends with shots of elephants moving through a dry savannah. One audience member, who grew up in South Africa, pointed out that in Zulu culture, the way elephants interact and care for each other is repsected and revered. By juxtaposing the community of elephants with visions of hyena-like men, Mambety is reminding us to look to ourselves, question our own motivations and attitudes to each other and society as a whole. Hyenas offers an uncompromising critique of human society and how we choose to build it. It couldn't have been screened at a more timely moment.
(images: Hyenas poster; Djibril Diop Mambety)