Djibril Diop Mambety: Senegalese Filmmaker

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Djibril Diop Mambety

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Djibril Diop Mambéty (1945-1998) is one of the most internationally recognized Senegalese filmmakers in history. Celebrated for his unique cinematic vision, he has been hailed as “one of Africa’s greatest auteurs, [1] “ as well as “the most paradoxical filmmaker in the history of African cinema. [2] “ A writer and director, Mambéty’s films have been well received for their ability to address social issues while still thoughtfully and faithfully portraying the experiences of his characters. Mambéty’s stature as a distinctly alternative storyteller (even in the culturally rich tradition of African film) is perhaps best illustrated by his own romantic conception of cinema itself; he once referred to film as “magic in the service of dreams. [3]

Personal History

Mambéty was born in January 1945 outside of Dakar in the neighborhood of Colobane. His life in cinema began shortly after his expulsion from the Daniel Sorano National Theater in Dakar, where he had worked as a stage actor. Mambéty’s dismissal allowed him to begin seeking financing for his first film, a short released in 1968 entitled Contras City. Despite the film’s inability to attract ticket sales, Mambéty was able to release a follow-up in 1970, another short called Badou Boy. Much like its predecessor, the film was set in Dakar and failed to make an impression at the box office. However, Mambéty did receive critical acclaim for these early short films, with Badou Boy winning the Silver Tanit at the 1970 Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia. [4]

In 1973, Djibril Diop Mambéty released the film for which he is undoubtedly most known today [5] : Touki Bouki. The film, Mambéty’s first to be feature-length, became known as a classic [6] in both Senegal and Europe following a screening of the film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973. After this success, Mambéty did not release another feature length film for nineteen years. When he did finally produce a proper successor to Touki Bouki, the effort resulted in 1992’s Hyènes. While the film lacked the experimental film language of its predecessor, critics recognized a maturity [7] that had been absent in the director’s older works. Mambéty followed up that release in 1994 with Le Franc, the first in a trilogy of short films entitled “Contes des Petites Gens” (the Tales of Little People). However, Mambéty was unable to complete the trilogy due to his untimely death following a heart attack at the age of fifty-three in 1998, although its second installment (La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil) was released posthumously in 1999.


Contras’ City (City of Contrasts) (1968)
Badou Boy (1970)
Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena) (1973)
Parlons Grand-mère (Let’s Talk Grandmother) (1989)
Hyènes (Hyenas) (1992)
Le Franc (1994)
La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil (The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun) (1999)

Themes & Style

Thematically, the films of Djibril Diop Mambéty’s often address conflicts arising from the social and economic hierarchy [8] of Senegal, though Mambety once said himself, “if my films have a political motivation, this is not my basic preoccupation. [9] “ Similarly, Charles Sugnet writes that Mambéty “is not a social realist” and that the conflicts of his films are resolved not by way of social progress, but rather through the individual experiences of his characters [10] . One particular way in which Mambéty’s films often critically consider the social realities of Senegal is in his representation of the ways in which traditional Senegalese culture intersects with Western-originated colonialism, modernity, and urbanization [11] .

Given both his interest in the Senegalese social hierarchy, as well as his reputation for alternative representation, it is not surprising that much of Mambéty’s work portrays characters that are in some way disenfranchised from the modern social environment. The name (as well as the content) of Mambéty’s unfinished trilogy (“the Tales of Little People”) is perhaps the best example of the director’s preoccupation with social marginalization. Of the topic, Mambéty himself once said, “I am interested in marginalized people, because I believe that they do more for the evolution of a community than the conformists. Marginalized people bring a community into contact with a wider world. [12]

Visually, Mambéty’s is style is heavily influenced by European experimental film (Ukadike 122) and in particular, the French New Wave (this is especially evident in the earlier films of Mambéty’s career). Touki Bouki and its rapid, sometimes disjunctive editing strategy are excellent evidence of this influence [13] . Mambéty’s films do not demonstrate a mere imitating of Western practices, however; rather, Mambéty’s style is an integration of such influences with his own unique cultural perspective [14] . Appropriately, one distinct visual hallmark of Mambéty’s work his frequent juxtaposition of signifiers of Western modernity (e.g. automobiles, skyscrapers) with pieces of African culture; perhaps the most representative instance of this is the cow-skull that adorns Mory’s motorcycle throughout Touki Bouki.

Touki Bouki

Mory and Anta, two young lovers and the heroes of Touki Bouki
Source: Still from Touki Bouki [15]

Touki Bouki is Djibril Diop Mambéty ‘s most celebrated film; thus, it provides many paradigmatic examples of tropes commonly found throughout his work. The film portrays Mory and Anta, two young lovers that dream of leaving Dakar to start a new life in Paris. As the film’s narrative unwinds, we see the pair execute several schemes for generating the income necessary for their trip to Europe (with varying levels of success). Several ways in which Touki Bouki exhibits traits characteristic of Mambety’s early career include a fragmented narrative (including conscious narrative digression), a jarring use of music, and an interest in the interaction between Western and African cultures [16] . On the latter topic, David Murphy writes, “Mambéty borrows heavily from Western experimental films in Touki Bouki, but in the process he creates something radically different, adapting such models to his own culture. In fact, Touki Bouki can be read as an exploration of the cultural encounter between the West and Africa.”

Hyènes Drameh and Ramatou of Hyènes Source: Still from Hyènes [17]

The story of 1992’s Hyènes is based in part on “The Visit”, a German-Swiss play written by Friedrich Dürrenmatt in 1956 (Ukadike 122). Thus, even in the film’s script there is evidence of Mambety’s interest in the social hybridization, though here it is used as as a narrative, rather than a visual strategy (as in Touki Bouki). Set outside of Dakar in Mambéty’s native Colobane, the film portrays Dramaan Drameh, a shop owner who is popular among the seedy neighborhood the film occupies. Hyènes’ plot is set into motion when Linguere Ramatou, a former lover of Drameh’s whom he wronged many years prior, returns to Colobane wealthy and vengeful. Showering the eager townspeople in her wealth, Ramatou offers the entire town an impossibly large sum of money with only one condition: she requires the death of Dramaan Drameh. Although the townsfolk initially oppose Ramatou and side with Drameh, the shopkeeper begins to grow suspicious as more and more of his usually frugal customers become high rollers, buying the most expensive items in Drameh’s shop without paying a second thought to the state of their credit.

It is at roughly this point in the narrative that the following scene occurs, when Drameh attempts to gain protection from his friend and political ally, the Mayor.

The scene.

This sequence is evidence of both the unique cultural commentary, as well as the humor that Mambéty instilled in his films. Furthermore, there is much representation (both in terms of narrative, as well as visually) of intersections between colonial and local Senegalese cultures, a common trope of Mambéty’s films. For example, the scene illustrates the contradictory way in which Drameh’s friends (driven by the capitalistic lure of avarice introduced by the Western-cultured Ramatou) superficially offer their support while simultaneously “speculating on his death.” Visually, Dayna Oscherwitz asserts that the Mayor’s cowboy hat acts as a signifier of American culture, in particular the tropes associated with the Western genre of film [18] . Thus, this brief scene offers additional evidence of Mambéty’s visual style serving the objectives of his film’s unique social perspective.

Additional Links

An interview with Djibril Diop Mambety, conducted by Tulane University film studies professor Dr. Frank Ukadike

La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil* Ukadike, N. Frank. “The Hyena’s Last Laugh: A Conversation with Djibril Diop Mambety.” Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. 123. Print.

  • Ukadike,121
  • Ukadike 128
  • Ukadike 122
  • Murphy, David, and Patrick Williams. “Ch. 4: Djibril Diop Mambety.” In Postcolonial African Cinema: Ten Directors, 91. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007.
  • Ukadike 122
  • Murphy and Williams 97
  • Murphy and Williams 93-95
  • Ukadike 130
  • Sugnet, Charles J.. “Wolof Orality, Senghorian Literacy, and the Status of Cinema in Djibril Diop Mambety’s “La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil”.” The French Review 79.6 (2006): 1231. JSTOR. Web.
  • Murphy and Williams 102-104
  • Ukadike 124
  • Murphy and Williams 97
  • Murphy and Williams 97
  • Touki Bouki. Directed by Djibril D. Mambety. Kino Video, 1973. DVD.
  • Murphy and Williams 97-98
  • Hyenas. Directed by Djibril D. Mambety. Performed by Mansour Diof and Ami Diakhate. Kino Video, 1992. DVD.
  • Oscherwitz, Dayna L.. “Of Cowboys and Elephants: Africa, Globalization and the Nouveau Western in Djibril Diop Mambety’s “Hyenas”.” Research in African Literatures 39.1 (2008): 230. JSTOR.

This page was last modified on 07 March 2013, at 01:06