Djibril Diop Mambety, the one and only

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It is impossible to evoke the man, the friend, the solitary figure, the master of irony, the whimsical, the actor, in just a few lines… Especially the man who, when asked what he was going to do about distributing Touki Bouki at Cannes in 1973, gave the Blue Bar barman the job… The man who, when asked what he thought of the reviews of Hyenas, said that he hadn’t read them yet, before recounting an anecdote about a man on the way to the gallows: « Just before the guillotine came crashing down, a telegram arrived. The man said: Put it in the basket, I’ll read it once my head is clear ».
There will never be enough space to discuss his films, to recall how, at 53 years old, he died too soon, right in the middle of editing La petite vendeuse de soleil, his head full of new ideas…
There will never be enough words to describe the novelty of his filmic style, how he so masterfully and economically translated his profound sensibility, his tender image of « little people », his acerbic critical view of the established order, his angst-ridden quest to understand the world, into images and sounds. Right from his very first films Contras’City (1968), a chaotic journey through the streets of Dakar, and Badou Boy (1970), the adventures of a « somewhat immoral street urchin who is very much like myself », he broke away from simple representations of reality, creating a style brimming with paradoxes, whose montage cyclically rhythmed the text and highlighted his profoundly free images that verged on a lyrical outpouring. This parodical style reached new heights in Touki Bouki, whose spiralling montage incessantly recalls the origin symbolized by the large-horned zebus that link the cosmos to the land of the ancestors, which Mory fixes to the handlebars of his motorbike. Mambety had already gone far beyond the classical opposition between tradition and modernity: of course Anta and Mory, both lured by the West, finally go their separate ways, one taking the boat and the other returning to his roots, but this « hyena’s journey » – the animal symbolizing marginality – reveals in a plethora of surrealist images that non-conformism brings everyone face to face with the question of their origins, that it is a practice, an obligatory passage in one’s relation with tradition.
The freedom Touki Bouki defends strewed Mambety’s path with many obstacles, in spite of all the critical acclaim. He plummeted into a long winter that took its toll on his health before resurfacing during the shooting of Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Yaaba, making the short film Parlons grand-mère (1989), a sensitive, uncommented angle on an African film shoot. In voice-over, he repeats his incantatory chant for dignity, for both Africa, and no doubt for himself: « Cinema or not cinema, grand-mother will avenge the child they have brought to its knees! » Once again, he affirmed the necessary passage via the grand-mother’s word, via the origin.
Mambety the joker sought this fantasizing passage in the work of the Swiss German playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt, filming a highly personalized adaptation of his play The Visit in 1992. As his fellow villagers close in on Draman Drameh to the sound of funereal chants when the Queen of Death, Lingeer Ramatou, offers them 100 billion in exchange for his life, its the very cupidity of the hyenas men have become that is clearly unveiled.
For Mambety, the « honest » man’s last recourse in the face of the power of money, is derision, dream and serenity. In an economic order that respects neither man nor the environment, the mirage of the winning lottery ticket depicted in Le Franc (1995) can be no more than a giddy trajectory towards something else, a something that is ultimately washed away in the sea.
Mambety’s magical films juggle derision and allegory. In all their incredible liberty, they handle paradox, weaving burlesque characters into hyperbolic images, finding their unity in a cyclical and repetitive montage and a music that links the shots together in true symphony. Overwhelmed, the spectator, if willing to be drawn in, will seek the coherence of the images. The symbolism directs the spectators towards a holistic understanding, the cyclical narration towards a metaphysic: in the face of Time, life is only a transitory episode, but it makes its mark through the permanence of creation.
In April 97, Mambety missed the plane that should have brought him to Paris to present Hyenas at the Ouaga-Carthage festival at the Parc de la Villette, where I was responsible for introducing his films. He sent a fax to his son to read to the audience, a fax that reminds us of him so very much:
Papa stuck in Africa. 5 April 97.
I wanted to send you a message to read tonight, but I’ve changed my mind.
After all, no one ever made a film alone.
Our vision was continental when we made Hyenas.
We called on the Elephants of the Kenyan Massaïmara in the opening, Hyenas from Uganda, People from Senegal, and the fairground rides and fireworks from the Fête de l’Humanité at la Courneuve.* That was in 1987.
We dedicated the lot to Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the invincible Swiss man.
Dramaan Drameh the man who may have to die at the end of this film sends his greetings.
He’ll know why he dies but not how. You won’t know either. The only one who will will be the magic.
If you absolutely have to know you spoil the magic.
Cinema is magic.
I won’t miss the next plane to La Villette. Djibril

* Translator’s note: The French Communist Party’s annual fair on the outskirts of Paris.///Article N° : 5309


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