Marrying the rhythmic pace and sweep of comedy with the symbol-rich dogma of mythology, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s cinema occupies the space between contemporary and archaic, reflecting his native Senegal as it struggles for an identity in the modern world. Hyenas identifies this figurative struggle as one between morality and practicality, painting an unflattering portrait of a village desperate enough to murder their way out of destitution. Understanding the woes of poverty, but never sympathizing, Mambéty masks his intentions under a veil of good-natured humor, playing coy, just like his mob of best-intentioned townspeople. Beneath the surface lies a bitter condemnation of community, revealed by the increasingly insidious actions of his characters, who treat friendship as a smile to the face and an opportunistic knife to the back.
Broke and reeling in desperation, Colobane’s citizens clamor to solve their economic woes, laughably conducting town meetings under the scorching sun, as they are far too deep in debt to get the city hall furniture out of hock. The only shade comes in the shape of Dramaan’s general store, an oasis of booze and cigarettes, conveniently sold on credit and run without enough backbone to demand cash or refuse service. The emptiness of the desert landscape completely envelopes them, leaving the village as blank as an unpainted canvas, wanting for factories or motor vehicles or precious anything to alleviate the hopelessness.
Miraculously, a savior arrives in the shape of an ostracized prostitute named Linguere, who is both exceedingly wealthy and suspiciously generous. She once shared a child with the aforementioned shopkeeper, who’s done his best in the passing years to forget this pre-marital transgression, mostly out of embarrassment. Despite bad blood, the two share an amiable reunion, revealing an undying chemistry as they relive their life together and reflect on the unfortunate passage of time. These reminiscences carry a surprising depth and the film’s primary strength is its willingness to color in the characters through their reactions and interpretations of past events, refusing to pass judgment in the process.
Overjoyed by the couple’s happy reunion and clamoring for a taste of Linguere’s cash, the townspeople hold a ceremony in their honor, begging that Linguere help Colobane re-attain “its lost splendor.” They even nominate Dramaan for mayor, hoping to benefit from his association with Linguere and his modest successes as a businessman. Expecting a free handout, the greedy mob is surprised to learn that salvation comes at a price; Linguere’s sole prerequisite for replenishing the town coffer is seeing Dramaan executed for his crimes of abandonment.
Initially pompous and righteously offended, the townspeople refuse to kill one of their own, sighting religious convictions and benevolent banalities. Dramaan is comforted by their solidarity, but doesn’t realize that their kindness also comes with a price tag. The town raids his storefront the following morning, seeking kickbacks for protection like a band of Mafia enforcers, demanding his finest cognac and Cuban cigars. Unable to find a sympathetic ear with cop or clergy, both of whom have been handsomely rewarded with plush digs and gold jewelry, Dramaan desperately tries to skip town by railway car, only to be surrounded by the angry mob and forced into servitude.
Despite serious implications, Hyenas carries the peaceful flow of its landscape, moving like wind rustling through the trees and wholly unrushed by narrative drive. Drenched in ambient synth and subdued string, it drifts like a dream, converting the purely organic into the surreal, lending dialogue an almost hypnotized lull. This sense of separation repurposes what would often be played for suspense into dark comedy, forcing us to laugh at the otherwise reprehensible.
The casual poetry of the repartee, which is wryly amusing in passing, but resonant in the afterthought, carries Mambéty’s underlying meaning. When the police chief’s flashy new fangs distress Dramaan, he pacifies by saying “Let’s not make a mountain out of a gold tooth.” It’s an amusing response with heavily ironic undertones, since the townspeople have done just that, traded in their values and compassion for triviality and temporary financial security. Their vain lust brought corruption and violence to Colobane, with Linguere acting as their Golem; a representation of base instincts and superficial desires. However unpopular and undesirable, Mambéty infers that financial poverty is certainly better than one of the conscience and for Senegal to remain vital in contemporary times, both artistically and professionally, it must retain traditional values. It’s a cliché-laden greeting card in less capable hands, but Mambéty imbues a time-worn theme with righteous anger, delicacy and Wildian vivacity.
Hyenas (Kino International, 1992)
Directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty
Written by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (play) and Djibril Diop Mambéty (screenplay)
Photographed by Matthias Kälin