Restoration revives anti-neocolonialist film from the Senegalese master Mambéty: human nature is under scrutiny when a billionaire agrees to give money to her struggling hometown—on her terms
S IS FOR SENEGAL
Djibril Diop Mambety died of lung cancer quite young but his legacy, of intricately made films with stunning visuals and never aging plots, lives on and gains ground. His “Hyenas” are less well known than Mambéty’s “Touki bouki” and “The little girl who sold the sun.” But a recent restoration by Metrograph pictures has made the film available to the audiences in all of its vibrant glory. It’s a masterpiece of global implications set among the sands of Senegal, with elements impeccably stylized in the finest afro-futurist fashion, and a must-see for anyone.
The village of Colobane has fallen on hard times. The furniture from the town hall is being repossessed, and the people can’t even afford to get drunk to forget about their troubles. But rumor has it that Linguère Ramatou, a Colobane-native who is now “richer than the world bank” is coming to town. As the citizens’ hopes are piled upon the mysterious Linguère who travels with a spectacular entourage, it becomes apparent that she is not visiting merely for pleasure. She has very particular grievances with Colobane, and she is prepared to use her riches to make the villagers do her dark bidding.
“Hyenas” is based on the Swiss play “The Visit” by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. But the play about a woman who had been wronged by the narrow morals of her small town of origin is just a part of this narrative,—even though Mambéty follows it quite closely. With the setting shifted from Europe to a tiny village in the middle of the desert, the plot takes on a mythical aspect, with Linguère playing a mirage. Meanwhile, Senegal’s postcolonial condition lays bare in the way Colobane,—Mambéty’s actual birthplace, now absorbed into the rest of Dakar,—is portrayed in its helplessness.
But the most fascinating are the nuances that are brought about by the dependence of the village’s small economy on the influence and prosperity of Linguère. Mambéty had admitted that in creating the film, and the enigmatic financial entity of Linguère within it, he wanted to point out that the biggest enemies of humankind are the IMF and the World Bank. The farcical elements of the morality play provided by Dürrenmatt and sharpened by Mambéty suspend your belief. But the film begs for many parallels to contemporary history that are, unfortunately, entirely non-fictional.
One of the prime examples of the Third Cinema movement in its African iteration, “Hyenas” is a masterful critique of neo-colonialism, which Mambéty observed in Senegal first hand. The microcosm of the film, split open from a much smaller nugget of the play by Mambéty, is an accurate, ingenious portrayal of how human societies become hostages to the idea of prosperity and its enforcers. Drenched in dark irony, and full of scenes in which good citizens try to justify their wrongdoing, “Hyenas” is one of the most fascinating studies of human nature in world cinema. It’s also one of the most imaginative examples of Marxist critique as represented through high art.
But the foresight and incisiveness with which Mambéty approached this truly vast subject, would not be possible without the warmth that his gift of cinema brought. It truly takes a genius to be able to make, say, a heart-rending film about a disabled street child and a satire on the horribleness of adults to be equally genuine, but he managed. Add to that the splendid characterization from a ragtag team of actors, with the eerie, brooding Ami Diakhate as Linguère, and the sympathetically clueless Mansour Diouf as her main enemy, Dramaan Drame. And, of course, as usual, the music of Wasis Diop, Mambéty’s brother and father of recent Cannes laureate Mati Diop, made this film into a masterpiece that it is. Kudos to Metrograph for breathing new life into it and marking a revival with the flawless restoration.
Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty