Although it’s been an annual occurrence on the local calendar for the last fifteen years, 2019 was the first year I attended PATOIS: The New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival. I only caught four screenings over two days at the fest, but it was a rewarding, energizing mix of political activism, queer community organizing, and avant-garde art that’s left a major impact on how I’ve been thinking about the purpose & boundaries of cinema in the weeks since. A lot of that political stimulation & intellectual contextualization stemmed from the activists tabling in the lobby, the panelists who hosted post-screening Q&As, and the organizers’ own pre-screening acknowledgements to the Indigenous Peoples whose land the festival, and by extension modern New Orleans, occupies. Of course, it was also largely due to the proper cinematic experience afforded to the often-underserved figures represented in the films themselves – funk pioneer Betty Davis, trans activist Marsha P. Washington, the anonymous women of Zambian labor camps, etc. Of the few films I saw at this year’s festival, none benefited from the big-screen theatrical treatment quite as much as the 1970s Senegalese road trip movie Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena in English). While not as much of an overt, explicit call-to-arms in its politics as other activist selections at the fest, Touki Bouki was the screening that most benefited from the sensory immersion of the theatrical experience. If I had seen Toki Bouki at home, I would have assumed that I missed something that explained the disoriented, illogical patterns of its storytelling in a moment when my attention wandered. Seeing it undistracted at PATOIS, I was still super confused & disoriented by its disinterest in A-B logic, but pleasantly so.
To call Touki Bouki a “road trip movie” is more a nod to the listless, episodic nature of its storytelling than it is reflective of its characters’ trajectory. Mory, an ox-herder, and Anta, a politically active college student, scheme throughout the film on how to grift enough money to fund an escape to Paris. It’s a mission that requires them to travel all over Senegal to attack their lack of funds from multiple angles (mainly petty theft). Josephine Baker’s romantic chorus of “Paris, Paris, Paris” serves as a rallying cry in this escapist mission, just one of the many notes of repetition that defines the cyclical rut the characters are stuck in. The most confounding of these cycles is the repeated fracturing of its timelines. Cross-cut with absolutely horrific footage of oxen being led to slaughter in a real-life abattoir, we repeatedly see Mory meet a deadly end before he can manufacture his Parisian escape. The nature of his fated death varies as the film sprawls into both documentarian observation & total detached fantasy: motorcycle crash, suicide, murder, etc. Its fractured, sensory-driven narrative has a clear surrealist bent to its sensibilities, but its editing room tinkering is almost outright Cubist: dissecting the same events repeatedly from multiple angles to establish a scattered, but more accurate truth. This is the story of a romantic dreamer who is not nearly as slick as he believes himself to be and is doomed to a violent death no matter how grand or wistful his ambitions of Parisian escape become. It’s a road trip movie where the trip itself is an impossibility – not only because no roads lead from Senegal to France, but because the only ultimate destination for flames that burn this brightly is a young death. Yet, it stubbornly carries on like a carefree road trip movie anyway, having fun sightseeing, posing fashionably, and meeting outlandish characters on the journey to its grim, cyclical destination.
There’s a kind of kinship between Touki Bouki and the 1966 Senegalese labor drama Black Girl; both films adopt filmmaking sensibilities from the French New Wave only to weaponize them against their own audience. The clearest this parallel shines through is in Touki Bouki’s third act, when white French colonialists on a ship in port complain about the loyalty & dignity of Senegalese servants, entirely unaware of how abhorrent they sound. The difference is that Black Girl overtly pursues this anti-French-Intellectuals perversion of French New Wave aesthetics for its entire runtime, whereas Touki Bouki is much looser in its narrative & messaging. In that way, Black Girl would almost be the more obvious choice for PATOIS programming (and for all I know, it has been included in the festival’s past). Touki Bouki is less overtly interested in politically subverting the French New Wave and often instead borrows the psychedelic Cool of that movement’s intense cinematography & sound design to create something unique, something distinctly Senegalese. Its fractured, psychedelic road trip creates a visual language & narrative pattern entirely of its own, which has made the film itself substantial standout outside any context of a cinematic movement. Its expansive palette allows for emotional peaks as varied as passionate sex, shit jokes, elaborate fantasies of wealth, graphic documentation of animal slaughter, and broad slapstick humor. Its own iconography has persisted so conspicuously that the cowskull-adorned motorcycle that facilitates Mory & Anta’s journey was even referenced in the promotional materials for Beyoncé & Jay-Z’s recent “On the Run” tour. Maybe that’s where its political activism lies: establishing a new cinematic aesthetic that’s distinctly black, African, and cerebral. Regardless, I’m very much appreciative that it landed on the PATOIS lineup so I could see it blown up loud and in the dark, fully immersed in its Cubist fantasy realm.