Touki Bouki, Atlantics, Dreams, and Hopes in Postcolonial Senegal

Paola Córdova explores the cultural spirit in post-independence Senegalese films

Image(s): wikipedia.com


Dakar, Senegal is one of the most essential cultural hubs on the African continent, with a long and fascinating history from the precolonial era to current day. After achieving its independence in 1960 from France, it became the world center of the negritude movement, celebrating black art and aesthetics through the efforts of first president and famed intellectual Leopold Sedar Senghor. By allocating a whopping 25% of the state’s expenditures towards building the movement, a specific Pan African artistic language to which artists within and outside of the movement had a myriad of responses.


Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena in Wólof) is a film placed in dialogue with this post-independence period, and the dying hopes of a newly born nation. Shown at Cannes Film Festival in 1973, the film gained acclaim in a way very few African films had done before, receiving the International Critics’ Award, and today continues to be recognized as one of the best films made in the history of cinema. It is filled with soured optimism following colonialism- the fragmentation, desperation, and dreams of a better life. As a postcolonial work of art, it thoroughly examines the question of alienation in the core of Senegalese people who, having multiple ethnic identities throughout the country and the spectral presence of France hovering over their national development, are experiencing what one might term a crisis of identity.


Without any formal training (that other Senegalese filmmakers like Ousmane Sembene have received), Mambety picked up a camera and just started filming Touki Bouki, using only about 30 thousand dollars to make it. Centered around the lives of Mory and Anta, a couple that hopes to leave Senegal and run off to the highly romantic picture of Paris that they formulate throughout the movie. Mory is a cattle herder and Anta a student at Dakar University. Together, they attempt to create plans to get the money they need to flee the lives they so deeply despise on a steam liner, with the repetitive tune of the chorus of Josephine Baker’s 1949 song Paris Paris Paris accompanying them in the background. The film shows the surroundings of the two lovers, as more extensions of their personas rather than as autonomous entities, and this grants the atmosphere a dream-like quality. A vibrant color palette accompanies this thematic focus, shot in natural light, giving the setting a strange sense of allure, particularly during the shots of the Atlantic Ocean- the body of water that guarantees the lovers’ desire to go off into the unknown. In this sense, the audience is fully immersed in the uncanny sense of alienation felt by individuals in the postcolonial world. The ocean symbolizes the uncertainty, instability, and escapist fantasy that stretches beyond.


Mory and Anta ride on a moped through the streets of Dakar together, partners in crime searching for new fraudulent schemes to carry out, willing to sacrifice their identities and integrity all in the name of the cartoonishly idealized construction of a world in which they wish to live. The film ends with Mory deciding to stay, sitting crouched over a set of cattle horns while ominous music plays in the background and Anta leaves him behind in her dust on her way to a new life.


Written like a poem, Touki Bouki rejects the concept of a linear narrative and tells its story through a surrealism largely thought to be influenced by negritude, but more embracing of the question of hybridity in the postcolonial identity. The question of immigration is not treated as something inherently malevolent, but rather something that hangs over the heads of people like a ghost, buried within people who live in the reality of the postcolonial world as a fundamentally existential anguish. Mambety translates this anxiety into the surrealist work of art Touki Bouki is, the fantastical element visualizing a problem that plagues not only Senegal, but a continent of nations looking for a new mode of being and existing. The fantasy of global and national identity is deconstructed in a profoundly lyrical manner.


Being as influential as this film was, it was only a matter of time before it was referenced in popular culture. Jay Z and Beyonce referenced it on their 2018 “On the Run II” world tour, popularizing the image of the two lovers on a moped with the cattle skull and horns on the handlebars. In 2009, Mati Diop, the niece of Mambety would see his work and create a dialogue with it through a short documentary film Atlantiques about a group of men seated around a bonfire telling the harrowing tales of their experiences with immigration. Later in 2013, she made another documentary Mille Soleils that examined Touki Bouki’s legacy. The film she made in 2019, however, got in contact with the thematic focus of Touki Bouki in a radically different form.


Under a similar name to that of her 2009 documentary, Atlantics follows the story of a young woman, Ada, who falls in love with a man called Souleimane who is underpaid and mistreated at his place of employment in Dakar. To her surprise, she finds out he has fled to Spain through the Atlantic Ocean with a group of other young men, hoping to make money and find employment on the European continent. As she marries another man out of familial obligation, she finds that there is an odd presence in her life, as though the man she really loves continues to be there. This becomes evident to her as she catches signs like her matrimonial bed catching fire on the night of her wedding. Eventually, one observes the spirits of the men who perished on that journey (among them, Souleimane) return in the bodies of women in Dakar to demand their employer pay them what he owes them, with eerie white eyes and monotone voices.


Diop has expressly stated how Atlantics is meant to speak directly to the tensions between French and Senegalese culture within her own identity, the way they were observed by her uncle in Touki Bouki. She hoped to humanize and grant a personal note embodied in a fantastical world to the problem of immigration and the ongoing crisis of identity of African immigrants that is discussed with such indifference and cruelty by Europeans still. She, like Mambety, gives her film the lyrical atmosphere with surrealist elements and a lush color palette centered on greens, blues, and darker hues as she places a coming of age love story with a twist at the center of her film. The Atlantic Ocean is beautifully shot but doubles as a symbol of ominous nature, its endless possibilities much darker than in Mambety’s film.


Her film, like Mambety’s, is entangled in the question of identity, but functions as a dialogue about idealization and the reality and dangers of it, especially in the context of movement and immigration. She embodies the feeling of alienation that haunts Senegalese people through the internal conflict and pain Ada faces throughout the film, as well as through the spirits of the dead men who have been wronged in the bodies of possessed women. The question of migration is underwritten by the ghost of colonialism, brutal systemic oppression, and the hardship imposed on people attempting to escape the reality into which they were forced from the start. While Touki Bouki deals with the question of identity in a dream-like version of Dakar that Mory and Anta conjure up in their minds as Paris Paris Paris plays over and over, Atlantics deals with the gritty reality that lies underneath that dream world while maintaining the fantasy element.


Several decades after the negritude movement promoted so fervently by Senghor died out, films like Atlantics and Touki Bouki maintain their cultural spirit and express the search for a new identity in decidedly African works of art. By granting artistic representation to the struggles of Senegal as a nation, as well as those of the postcolonial world in general, their dialogue grants a voice to a generation still searching for a place in a world made by and for Europeans.