Twenty years after his astonishing first film, Touki Bouki, Djibril Diop Mambety brings us a second feature, Hyenas, as provocative as his first. He adapts a timeless parable of human greed into a biting satire of today's Africa - betraying the hopes of independence for the false promises of Western materialism. Mambety has even been called the avatar of a new mood sweeping the continent - "Afro-pessimism."
Hyenas had a long and unexpected gestation. Years ago, when Mambety was living in Dakar's port district, a beautiful prostitute would descend from high society each Friday night to treat the poor of the quarter to a lavish meal. They named her Lingučre (Unique Queen in Wolof) Ramatou (the red bird of the dead in Egyptian mythology.) Suddenly, one Friday she didn't appear and Mambety decided to invent a history for her. He imagined her to be the sole survivor of an outcast family slaughtered by a superstitious village which still lived in fear of her return.
Mambety only discovered an ending for his story years later when he saw Ingrid Bergman in a film version of Frederich Dürrenmatt's celebrated play, The Visit of the Old Woman. In this reclusive Swiss master's bitter tale of a wealthy, aged prostitute's vengeance against the man who betrayed her, Mambety recognized the fate of Lingučre Ramatou. In appreciation he dedicated his African adaptation to "the great Frederich."
In Mambety's version, Lingučre Ramatou was a beautiful, spirited but poor young woman from the sleepy village of Colobane who had fallen in love with a young man, Dramaan Drameh. When she became pregnant with his child, he denied paternity and bribed two men to say they had slept with her, so he could marry a wealthy wife. Driven from the village, her ideals shattered, Linguhre was forced into prostitution and has miraculously become the richest woman in the world, "as rich as the World Bank."
Mambety parallels the fate of Colobane in the intervening years with that of Africa, languishing in the decaying shell of the colonial past instead of building a vibrant new society. Dramaan runs a dilapidated bar/general store under the watchful eye of his avaricious wife where the corrupt and indolent townsfolk drown their ennui in cheap wine.
When Lingučre Ramatou finally returns, she offers the impoverished village a trillion dollars - if they will destroy the man who destroyed her. She says: "The world made a whore of me, I want to turn the world into a whorehouse. You can't walk in the jungle with a ticket for the zoo. If you want to share the lion's feast, then you must be a lion yourself."
Although initially outraged, the villagers are easily seduced by the air conditioners, refrigerators and television sets Linguhre showers on them. In a stunning visual metaphor, Mambety represents "consumer society" as a garish amusement park where even the stars have been replaced by fireworks. Like today's African bourgeoisie, Colobane becomes a "credit junkie," dependent on foreign debt. In the film's climax, the townspeople literally consume Dramaan, leaving only his clothes behind like hyenas.
Lingučre's revenge can be seen as symbolic retribution for centuries of African (not to say European) patriarchy. But even she realizes her victory is hollow. She has claimed that money would allow her to abolish time, to buy back the youth and love stolen from her. But her pursuit of power and possessions has left her cold and lifeless, "half-metal," as Dramaan rather ungallantly remarks when he sees her gold leg. With his murder, Linguhre metaphorically descends into her grave. Only Dramaan, when he finally recognizes the futility of his past desires, is freed from illusion to confront reality with calm and dignity.
Towards the end of both his feature films, Mambety interjects a quintessentially Senegalese image - a bright sea glistening with possibility next to the dusty, windswept barrenness of the Sahel. But in Hyenas, an altogether grimmer film, the final shot is of bulldozer tracks relentlessly erasing the past, a lone baobab tree standing amid the endless texts of post-modernity. Any Senegalese would understand the story's conclusion. Colobane (which was Mambety's actual birthplace) is today a notoriously sleazy market and transit point on the edge of Dakar.
While Touki Bouki reminded many filmgoers of the Godard of Pierrot le Fou, Hyenas may suggest the Pasolini of Medea or Teorema. Mambety creates a stylized, fabular world structured around an implacable logic, the logic of the marketplace, the "reign of the hyena." Mambety's 1994 short Le Franc confirms his stature as Africa's master of magic realism. Manthia Diawara of New York University, describes the 1992 premiere of Hyenas as "the entry of an auteurist viewpoint into African cinema. Mambety was to Carthage '92 what John Ford and Orson Welles had been to Cannes."