by Ralph Dumain
PROLOGUE: FROM EUROPE TO AFRICA AND BEYOND
The purpose of art, through which prophecy speaks, according to William Blake, is to raise men's perceptions to the infinite. The experience of Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety's Hyenas (1992) was of this order. I had to write down my thoughts the minute I returned home from seeing it.
Hyenas was inspired by The Visit by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt. While losing nothing of Durenmatt's original play, Mambety has added new depth to it in the Africanization of the story. I wonder whether Mambety himself was fully conscious of the magnitude of his accomplishment. I wonder whether the awestruck audiences of Senegal, France, and the United States thought carefully about what they saw. I wonder whether Hegel, miraculously resurrected and placed in the auditorium with a comprehension of spoken Wolof or English subtitles, would realize that even he was being laughed at. As everyone filed out of the Hirschorn Museum afterwards, I grilled the representative of the Senegalese consulate on the genesis and social context of the film. He could not answer my questions fully, and I think I made him nervous.
An old woman millionairess with a gold artificial leg and hand returns to her impoverished native village after several decades. Hearing she is wealthy beyond belief, the villagers prepare an elaborate array of pomp and circumstance in her honor to flatter her into using her money to revitalize their decaying, poverty-stricken lives. They regale her with ceremonial speeches, ritual dances, music, and praise songs. Knowing full well what they do, she makes an announcement.
But first, she dismisses the faulty memory of their praises. Secondly, she explains the circumstances that drove her out of the village and brought her back. The village shopkeeper had made her pregnant at the age of seventeen, suborned the perjury of witnesses to back up his denials, and she was branded by their mores, and, as a social outcast, became a prostitute, travelled the world, and became rich through prostitution. Her lover, now the storekeeper, had dumped her to marry for money, but he and his wife along with the rest of the village lives in squalor, too, since everybody "buys" everything on credit and never pays.
The old woman agrees to make the village and its people wealthy beyond their imagination. There is one condition: the storekeeper, the man who betrayed her, must first be killed. The people in the village are outraged at this condition. "We are still Africans. We are civilized people. We won't kill for money."
Their resolve begins to waver rather quickly, however, as the old wealthy woman gives away stylish new boots from Burkina Faso, Havana cigars, refrigerators, and more; she installs air conditioning, brings fireworks and ferris wheels to the desert. (Mambety's visual display is breathtaking, raising African film to a new technical level.) Nobody actually kills the shopkeeper, but he is terrified for his life. Eventually his wife accepts these bribes, and he knows he is done for. The last person to give in is the village educator, the Professor, but he too succumbs when the shopkeeper convinces him of the inevitability of the outcome. Reconciling himself to his fate, saying he has initiated the chain of events which have led to these consequences, he resigns himself with inner peace to his fate, but his resignation only makes the villagers nervous, where before they smirked at him as he desperately tried to elude his fate. They ask him if he is willing to die for the good of the village. He says no: "I am willing to accept my fate; you will have to live with your own decisions."
The villagers convene to put the shopkeeper on trial. They implore the wealthy woman one last time not to make them do this deed in order to get the wealth they need to survive. At the very beginning she told them that her money could buy anything, which it surely has. She is so rich she owns the land underneath them which houses oil and minerals. Now she tells the shopkeeper: "I became a whore, so I made the world into a whorehouse." She refuses to relent. The villagers, clothed in ritual garb with bizarre African equivalents of the powdered wigs of European courts, invoke all the formulas about justice. They try and convict him for the wrong inflicted on the old wealthy woman, and in the end he is killed.
Hyenas are in Senegalese culture a symbol of evil. The time of the hyenas means the corruption of desperate people by money. That much is obvious. But I have some deeper questions about what it is that has been corrupted. It is not just a question of hypocrisy or even of the injustice done to the woman as a teenage girl. There is a question about the relation of people's morality and institutions, what they hold sacred, in relationship to practical circumstances; not merely adaptation of one's sacred honor to practicality and expediency, not merely this kind of rationalization, which is all too evident, but the very material foundations and conceptions on which their morality and their institutions and their rituals and their social formulas were based in the first place. Here is where Mambety's genius glows, going even beyond the Durenmatt original, perhaps even beyond Mambety's own conscious intentions. The critique of the power of money--transnational capitalism and western neocolonialismis obvious, but, cultural politics being what they are, few critics are going to perceive the film's implicit indictment of tradition itself.
I could not help thinking all throughout the film about the confrontation of traditional mores with the power of capital. If, in the modern world, money knows no limits, no other sacred qualities, and can buy everything, does that imply that what has been bought was of value before it was corrupted? With this thought in mind, I gingerly approached the official ambassador of Sengalese culture.
I asked him about what in Dürrenmatt's story inspired the filmmaker. I asked him if the theme of tradition vs. modernity was an added ingredient. He could not or would not answer clearly, but he admitted that the filmmaker added something to the story to make it fit African conditions. I asked him about the filmmaker's attitude to African traditions, whether he was just criticizing the power of money, or whether he was saying something fundamentally critical of all human institutions. I said, in the end the people have failed to learn anything about justice. The embassy attache responded, yes, they were just rationalizing. He didn't seem to catch my drift.
For it is not just a matter of rationalizing. People can commit the most unspeakable acts out of a clear consciousness of naked expediency, and realize, if they are objective, that there is something about justiceits larger possibilities and impossibilitiesthat transcends both traditional and mercenary values, something which perhaps the shopkeeper had finally learned about the human condition as he faced death. The people who killed him could have realized, as they were going through the motions of justice, that they might have to throw out their whole system of formulaic pretensions of what is moral, and face up to the fundamental artificiality of all their institutions, but they could not achieve this moment of self-recognition. They still wanted to be Africans even while they prostituted themselves to capital.
The cultural ambassador was willing to grant that people everywhere rationalize and uphold problematic traditionsit is a universal condition. But he could not answer me. The only information he volunteered was this: When the people are speaking in Wolof, the people constantly express themselves in proverbs. They cite proverbs back and forth to one another. They don't speak in logical propositions. You have to read between the lines to puzzle out what they really mean.
Out in the open winter air, under a full moon beginning to wane, I thought about Hegel and Antigone, about tragedy, about someone's remark (Marcuse's?) that tragedy evokes tears and pity while leaving everything exactly as it was, about Hegel's double-dealing project of reconciliation, about the pitiability of human social institutions pretending to carve out coherent forms in the shapeless desert, by the unbounded sea, under the infinite sky. I thought about what it meant for people to speak in Wolof proverbs. Walking home in the dark, passing the Library of Congress, turning left off of Independence Avenue and up Second Street, I felt my perceptions raised up to the infinite, I felt myself released from the worry of impressing my fellow humans. I laughed the hearty laughter of the gods, and the ironic laughter of helpless man.
The people speak in proverbs.
The people clothe their thoughts in formulas.
The people have rituals for everything
to drown out the infinite laughing in the desert.
Ralph Dumain, midnight, 17-18 February 1995
Edited and uploaded 29 July 2000
© 1995, 2000 Ralph Dumain
The film's obvious referents are corruption in government and western imperial economic interests. I am sure that Mambety had these in mind, judging from the interview material on the web. I hope I emphasized with sufficient clarity my point that the film's objective content probably transcends the conscious intent of its author. It looks as if Mambety consciously had in mind the power of money to corrupt, to buy anything. It is not at all indicated that he had the conscious intention of criticizing traditional African customs which were corrupted by the poverty and the power of money, though he has expressed his belief in the superior viewpoint of marginalized persons. However, objectively the film proves that tradition is as bankrupt as modern capitalist social relations, that traditional belief systems impose the illusion of a moral order where none exists or can exist, as human beings are slaves to circumstance and all of their customs are imperfect attempts to stabilize their situation.
In my opinion Mambety improves upon the original Dürrenmatt play, and the African content he added enriched the story. But I view this as paradoxical. That is, as Mambety adds some nationally specific content to an essentially universal story, he also extends the range of meaning of the story in ways he perhaps did not intend, for now the story is not only about the nature of capital and the way it bulldozes traditional morality, but it is also about traditional customs and practices and how ultimately fraudulent their pretensions are when their limitations are exposed. It wasn't after all capitalism that caused the woman to be ostracized on account of her sexual liaison with Draman Drameh, it was traditional mores. The film expands the original meaning of the play because it opens out from fixed cultures into the indeterminate and unknown: the ultimate existential meaning of justice. I am probably the only one who sees the film this way, because ultimately I'm not all that impressed by nationality, ethnicity, tradition, etc., and therefore I don't really care about "African cinema" for its own sake. Before I discovered Hyenas, I thought that Ousmane Sembene was the best of the lot, especially for his Marxism and atheism, but I think Mambety outdid him in this one film.
6 December 2002, edited & uploaded 16 January 2003
©2003 Ralph Dumain
1. Adam Whybray at MUBI: Hyenas (1 May 2017):
A film that gets sadder and wiser the more you reflect upon it. Proverbial reality. There is a question about the relation of peoples morality and institutions, what they hold sacred, in relationship to practical circumstances [...] the very material foundations and conceptions on which their morality and their institutions and their rituals and their social formulas were based in the first place. (Ralph Dumain)
Touki Bouki: Film Review by R. Dumain
Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe—Study Guide
FURTHER RESOURCES ON DJIBRIL DIOP MAMBETY
In Loving Memory of Djibril Diop Mambety (1945-1998)
THE HYENA'S LAST LAUGH: A Conversation with Djibril Diop Mambety
California Newsreel: Hyenas
Anarchic VISIONS.(Djibril Diop Mambety) [JSTOR] by Robert Sklar
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Uploaded 29 July 2000
Addendum uploaded 16 January 2003
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