We are done. I’m not speaking only about us here in Africa but of humanity, of man. We have sold our soul too cheaply. The feeling I have is that we are done for if we have traded our souls for money.
—Djibril Diop Mambéty
Senegal’s second greatest director, Djibril Diop Mambéty, only made two features. The country’s greatest director, Ousmane Sembène, made eight. Mambéty was born in 1945, Sembène in 1923. Mambéty lived for only fifty-three years, Sembène for eighty-four. It is useful to think of the two artists in terms of a golden age and a silver age. Sembène represents the former and Mambéty the latter, in much the same way that Yasujirō Ozu is the former and Nagisa Oshima the latter in Japanese cinema. With the golden age, we have the artist as a resounding bell; with the silver age, the artist as Baudelaire’s cloche fêlée, the cracked bell.
But what is this cracked bell? It is a condemnation with pessimism. Sembène’s work is consistent with that of all golden agers because it condemned without pessimism. Mambéty’s work, like that of other silver agers (cloche fêlée), condemned but without hope for redemption. His criticisms were omnidirectional and unsparing. This is why it was possible to accuse Mambéty of giving in to afro-pessimism—but not in its original sense of relating the failure of African economic development to something cultural, something even genetic, something deep in the African character. This bad brand of afro-pessimism ignores the high interest rates on African debts, or the political support of corrupt African leaders who are aligned with European or American business interests, or the IMF’s enforcement of economic development programs that have never worked anywhere in the world and at anytime in the three-hundred-year history of capitalism. Bad afro-pessimism claims that Africa is stuck because it is Africa.
Mambéty’s second and last feature film, Hyènes (Hyenas), is, without a doubt, deeply pessimistic, and it is set in Africa; but it views African failure as something far more profound and universal. His pessimism is found not in the depth of the African character but in the human one. In fact, if one were not told of the true origin of Hyènes, one would naturally assume it is 100 percent African, that it’s rooted in black culture, that it is a part of Senegal’s rich oral tradition. It looks like a perfectly black African parable of the dangers of greed and the foibles of communal life. One could even imagine transforming its main characters into animals, a common feature for African folk tales: the wise lion, the crafty rabbit, the persistent turtle, the pensive elephant. Indeed, the film begins with a herd of elephants, who, at the stroke of one cut, become human beings. But this is all an illusion. This is why the first and biggest surprise one encounters when examining the movie’s background and steps of development is that the source of its story isn’t anywhere in Africa but in the heart of Europe. The story of the prostitute who returns to her village to exact revenge on the man who broke her heart when she was young and vulnerable was all dreamt up in the head of a Swiss. Hyènes turns out to be a very faithful adaptation of The Visit, a play by the German-Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt. And it is this link between a work that is so European and one that appears so African that captures the essence of Mambéty’s genius as an artist and the humanity of his pessimism.
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