Black Girl (La Noire De...) • Touki Bouki • African Cinema
Greenscreening Series #38
October 8, 2023
October 8, 2023
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Two seminal Senegalese films from the country's golden age: Black Girl (La Noire De...) (1966) and if you're feeling a bit more adventurous, the avant-garde Touki Bouki (1973).
Ousmane Sembène was one of the greatest and most groundbreaking filmmakers who ever lived, as well as the most renowned African director of the twentieth century — and yet his name still deserves to be better known in the rest of the world. He made his feature debut in 1966 with the brilliant and stirring Black Girl. Sembène, who was also an acclaimed novelist in his native Senegal, transforms a deceptively simple plot — about a young Senegalese woman who moves to France to work for a wealthy white family and finds that life in their small apartment becomes a prison, both figuratively and literally — into a complexly layered critique of the lingering colonialist mind-set of a supposedly postcolonial world. Featuring a moving central performance by M’Bissine Thérèse Diop, Black Girl is a harrowing human drama as well as a radical political statement — and one of the essential films of the 1960s. - Criterion
Find Black Girl via Reelgood
With a stunning mix of the surreal and the naturalistic, Djibril Diop Mambéty paints a fractured portrait of the disenchantment of postindependence Senegal in the early 1970s. In this picaresque fantasy-drama, the disaffected young lovers Anta and Mory, fed up with Dakar, long to escape to the glamour and comforts they imagine France has to offer, but their plan is confounded by obstacles both practical and mystical. Alternately manic and meditative, Touki Bouki has an avant-garde sensibility characterized by vivid imagery, bleak humor, unconventional editing, and jagged soundscapes, and it demonstrates Mambéty’s commitment to telling African stories in new ways. - Criterion
Find Touki Bouki via Reelgood
“How do you speak to a people? How do you raise people’s consciousness? Through cinema.” - Ousmane Sembène, director of Black Girl.
"I feel that a filmmaker must go beyond the recording of facts. Moreover, I believe that Africans, in particular, must reinvent cinema. It will be a difficult task because our viewing audience is used to a specific film language, but a choice has to be made: either one is very popular and one talks to people in a simple and plain manner, or else one searches for an African film language that would exclude chattering and focus more on how to make use of visuals and sounds." - Djibril Diop Mambéty, director of Touki Bouki
Throughout this series, we’ve explored ways that filmmakers have illuminated the human condition through their work. Whether it’s how Bicycle Thieves makes the search for a stolen bicycle illustrate the day-to-day fight for survival of impoverished Italians, or how Rashomon’s debate about an assault trial casts doubt on the very nature of truth, or the way Rear Window thrills us with a suspenseful investigation of a neighborhood murder, while questioning why we’re drawn to such stories in the first place - films tell us about the world, about ourselves, and about each other.
But to this point in the story of film, the resources to tell these stories have largely rested with a few powerful groups within powerful nations. Mostly American or European, almost exclusively men, mostly White.
After World War II, the world embarked on an era of rapid change that profoundly influenced cinema. Countries around the world invested in creating national cinemas as a way to bolster creative expression and strengthen cultural identity through the 20th Century's most impactful emergent art form.
Last time, we looked at the Cuban Golden Age of cinema, which followed the Cuban Revolution. This time, we look at Senegalese Cinema, with two classics of the national cinema that emerged during the 1960s: Black Girl and Touki Bouki.
Ousmane Sembène was born in Senegal during French colonial rule. He was drafted into the French Army during WWII. After the War, he migrated to France and worked in factories for several years.
After an accident left him unable to continue manual labor, he taught himself to read and write French and began to pursue writing. At the same time, he joined the Communist Party and the ranks of leftist intellectuals.
After publishing a few novels, he decided to try filmmaking. Sembène was drawn to cinema by its mass appeal. His preferred method of expression, the novel, was for the elite. Late in his life, he called cinema "the people’s night school."
However, his journey into filmmaking was nearly as bold as becoming a self-taught novelist, because in 1960 there were essentially no Senegalese filmmakers, or really any sub-Saharan filmmakers.
Before Senegal gained independence from French colonial rule in 1960, the French government controlled and regulated cultural production, including cinema. In fact, beginning in the 1930s, France forbade its colonial subjects from making films. As a result, there wasn’t a Senegalese film industry - no training, no funding, no infrastructure or film equipment, merely theaters that showed French and American films.
After gaining independence, Senegal, like many other newly independent African nations, recognized the importance of cultural expression and the potential of cinema as a means of storytelling and cultural preservation. This led to a concerted effort to develop a national cinema.
In 1961, just a year after independence, the Senegalese government established the Senegalese Film Office (OFCINE), which played a pivotal role in promoting and supporting the development of national cinema. France, forever in love with cinema, provided development support and funding to the nascent Senegalese film industry through their Ministry of Cooperation.
Sembène received a scholarship to study filmmaking in Russia for a year, and then returned to Senegal to commence work.
After two short films, he began work on Black Girl, based on the real-life story of a Senegalese migrant worker who worked for a family that split time between Dakar and the French Riviera.
Sembène broke new ground with Black Girl. It was the first feature film released by a sub-Saharan African director. The film set the stage for an entire generation of African filmmakers who would follow in his footsteps.
Notably, Sembène’s screenplay for Black Girl was rejected for funding by France’s Ministry of Cooperation, the only film rejected at the time. So he raised alternative financing and made the film on a shoestring budget. That the film received international acclaim, including by many French film critics, makes the film's genesis all the more important -- the former colonizers couldn't take any of the credit for Africa's first major cinematic breakthrough.
At its core, Black Girl is a profound exploration of identity. It tells the story of Diouana, a young woman from Senegal who migrates to France as a domestic worker, seeking a better life.
The film takes a deeply personal journey through Diouana's experiences, revealing the stark cultural clashes she faces in Europe, particularly between her African heritage and the European household she serves. The film examines the power dynamics, the isolation, and the simmering frustration that Diouana endures as a migrant worker.
As Diouana navigates the complexities of her new existence, the film delves into the layers of her identity, both as a person and as an African. The film also explores the challenges of maintaining one's identity in foreign lands, and specifically the challenges of the African diaspora. The film also makes poignant commentary on the legacy of colonialism, its impact on the colonized, and the complexities of postcolonial identity.
Black Girl stands out not just for its compelling narrative but for its distinct characteristics that challenge our preconceived notions of what cinema can achieve.
Sembène was a master storyteller, and in Black Girl, he brings forth a story that is authentic, personal, and deeply rooted in the experiences of the characters. This authenticity is a hallmark of his work and allows audiences to connect with the characters on a profound level.
Sembène doesn't rely on elaborate sets or extravagant visuals. Instead, he uses simple yet evocative imagery to convey complex emotions and themes. This minimalist approach brings the story and characters to the center.
Sembène also used his films as a platform for social and political commentary. Black Girl is a powerful critique of colonialism and the mistreatment of African migrants in Europe. Sadly, the conflicts at the center of Black Girl are as relevant today, nearly 60 years after the film was released.
Sembène earned international acclaim for Black Girl, and won the Prix Jean Vigo for the year's best feature film (which had been won by Jean-Luc Godard for Breathless in 1960).
The film turned the world onto the possibility of African cinema and ignited national cinemas across the continent.
Countries throughout Africa invested in education and training for aspiring filmmakers. In 1968, Senegal opened Cinémathèque Afrique, a film archive and cultural center, which became a hub for film preservation and education. And the FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso, established in 1969, provided a platform for African filmmakers to showcase their work and learn from one another.
Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973) is another seminal work in African cinema and associated with the broader movement of African modernist cinema.
Like Sembène, Mambéty came to film from another art - theater. Mambéty was an actor in his early adulthood, until he was kicked out of his theater company. Shortly after, even though he had no formal training, he began making films. Touki Bouki was his first feature film.
Unlike Sembène's Black Girl, which mostly utilizes traditional film language, Touki Bouki is known for its experimental and avant-garde approach to storytelling.
Touki Bouki is often described as a cultural collage, blending elements of traditional Senegalese life with symbols of Western modernity. This juxtaposition of cultural references highlights the tension between tradition and modernity that is central to the film's thematic exploration.
The film follows the journey of Mory and Anta, two young lovers in Senegal who dream of escaping to a better life in France. To fund their journey, they turn to a life of crime and embark on a surreal and chaotic odyssey. This journey is symbolic of the broader postcolonial experience of seeking opportunities beyond one's homeland, often with complex and ambiguous outcomes.
At its core, Touki Bouki explores themes related to youth, rebellion, and cultural dislocation, and the tensions between tradition and modernity in African societies.
Mambéty was influenced by a range of filmmakers and artists, and these influences are visible in the film, often in collisions and contradictions. Some of Mambéty’s notable influences include French New Wave Cinema - both Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut - Surrealism, African Oral Tradition, and Modernist Art and Literature.
But even with frequent homage to his influences, Mambéty’s film doesn’t really look like anything else. That’s because Mambéty wasn’t interested in following traditional filmmaking logic or symbolism. He viewed filmmaking conventions as a form of artistic colonialism. Instead, he was searching for something new and distinctly African.
All of this makes Touki Bouki a wildly original film, one that could only have originated from an African director, and which pushes us to imagine new cinematic possibilities.
With its satirical tone, non-linear structure that one scholar called "intentionally digressive," and use of symbolism and allegory, to contemporary audiences, Touki Bouki probably feels like a mashup of Breathless, Bonnie & Clyde, and Easy Rider.
Touki Bouki eschews traditional narrative structure, weaving together a series of episodic and fragmented scenes. This unconventional approach invites viewers to engage actively with the narrative and piece together the story themselves.
For Mambéty, style is substance. This approach encourages viewers to approach the film as an immersive and sensory experience rather than a conventional cinematic narrative. Mambéty's goal was to achieve a more purely African form of expression. After all, cinematic conventions were created in the West, and in his view carried the legacy of cultural imperialism.
Mambéty employs rich symbolism and allegory throughout the film, which contribute to the film's abstract and dreamlike quality.
Many of the film’s images draw from Wolof and other West African societies. I’ve included short descriptions of some of these images in the section “What to Watch For,” but it’s by no means expert or exhaustive.
Most significant to this film is probably the cow, which is a densely meaningful West African symbol, with religious, communal, and financial connotations. Also significant: the hyena. The film’s title is Wolof for “journey of the hyena”. In West African folklore, the hyena is a trickster or deceiver, much like the film’s protagonist, Mory.
The recurring image of the motorcycle, adorned with cow skulls, is a central symbol in the film. It represents a fusion of traditional African imagery (the cow skulls) with Western modernity (the motorcycle). This symbolizes the tension between tradition and modernity in Senegalese society and also lends the film surreal and dreamlike imagery, blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy.
Mambéty makes innovative use of sound in Touki Bouki. The film's soundtrack combines traditional Senegalese music with modern jazz and experimental soundscapes. There’s also evocative use of Josephine Baker singing a love song to France, which symbolizes the protagonists’ desire to get to France.
Scholars have unpacked a lot of meaning from the inclusion of Baker’s voice. Baker took Europe and America by storm during the Jazz Age, and now serves as a historical reminder of an instance of the White West exoticizing and eroticizing Africannness - see the linked Criterion essays below if you’re interested in learning more.
The editing in Touki Bouki is intentionally fragmented, with abrupt cuts and juxtapositions of disparate scenes. This editing style disrupts traditional continuity and contributes to the film's sense of dislocation and alienation. This is one aspect of the film where you can see the French New Wave influence most heavily.
Overall, Touki Bouki is a prime example of African modernist cinema, pushing the boundaries of cinematic storytelling and inviting viewers to engage with its narrative on multiple levels — emotionally, symbolically, and intellectually. Its experimental style challenges conventions and continues to captivate audiences interested in avant-garde cinema and the intersection of culture and identity.
Senegal's film industry was at its height from the release of Black Girl until the early 1980s. Both Sembène and Mambéty continued making films, with Sembène particularly enjoying a period of productivity during the 1970s.
But the country experienced an intense economic crisis in the 1980s. The film industry rapidly declined, dropping to only producing five feature films per year. With the rise of cable and home video at the end of the 20th century, and with the rise of streaming in this century, Senegalese cinema has never fully recovered.
Both Black Girl and Touki Bouki have gained recognition over the years, and are both considered among the greatest films ever made.
Touki Bouki ranked 66th in Sight and Sound’s 2022 Critics Poll of the greatest films of all time, just ahead of Metropolis and The Red Shoes, and just behind The Third Man and Casablanca. Critics ranked Black Girl the 95th greatest film of all time in 2022.
It’s worth noting that neither film placed in the top 100 in the 2012 critics poll. This reflects both a combination of wider viewership and deeper consideration for representation among film scholars.
For what it’s worth, in college (2002-05) I was aware of Black Girl - it was referenced in textbooks with the talking point “the most important African film to be aware of” - but for a long time I would have needed to track down an import on eBay or catch it at a film festival. I only heard of Touki Bouki a few years ago, when Criterion released a special edition.
The Criterion Collection and Janus Films are probably largely responsible for these films’ rise in the rankings. Both films received a restoration and Criterion Collection release after 2012. It’s now easier than ever for film lovers to see and appreciate these films, along with special features that invite a deeper consideration. For better or worse, a Criterion release can feel like a stamp of approval or a call to cinema lovers to check out a film that they otherwise might not seek out.
The nonlinear structure - with frequent flashbacks - is a technique we’ve seen in several films. How does its use here differ in tone and impact from other films in the series, and how is it similar?
The use of voiceover in Black Girl differs from how we’ve seen it used in Western films. Sembène uses it to give his protagonist a voice when the outside world denies it or won’t listen.
Pay attention to the ways Sembène shows cultural clash between Diouana and her employers - framing, costuming, music, and more.
In Touki Bouki, Mambéty incorporates cultural references and symbols specific to Senegal and West Africa that, while not essential for Western audiences to fully appreciate the film, can deepen their understanding and enhance the viewing experience. Here are some examples:
It’s also important to note that a lot of the film is intended to be surreal and dreamlike. So if you watch the film and don’t quite understand what’s going on or what something means, it might be intentional.
Black Girl: Self, Possessed Essay by Ashley Clark for the Criterion edition of Black Girl
Sembène’s Black Girl is a Ghost Story essay by Doyle Calhoun for Public Books Magazine
Touki Bouki: Word, Sound, and Power By Ashley Clark for Criterion
Touki Bouki: Mambéty and Modernity Essay by Richard Porton for Criterion.
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