Cinema: Djibril Diop Mambéty, the archangel of the little people

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“Death destroys the flesh, but not good works”, sing the griots, these storytellers, “historians” and troubadours from home. Without question, Djibril Diop Mambéty is of the most illustrious race; those on whom the corrosive virtues of time have no effect, except that by aging it improves the creative genius, amplifies the aura, incenses the gesture and softens the contours without alternating the substance. Mambéty was the alpha artist!

In an article that looks like a eulogy, his friend, the Congolese director Balufu Baluka Kanyinka concluded: “Djibril Diop Mambéty is a work. A universal and immortal work. »Following him, I would allow myself to add this: the figure of Mambéty is that of a timeless demiurge. And from this point of view, he cannot die, and will never die. He is, forever, in the pantheon, “in the lightening shadows”, to quote another famous Ndiobène (the Diop clan), the poet-veterinarian Birago Diop.

Precocious autodidact, nothing or almost nothing of his family environment predestined the young Djibril to such a meteoric career, first as an actor, then a director and finally a director. On February 23, 1945 in Colobane, in a pious family, to the father imam, with Islam as the primary and ultimate reference, a young boy was born. He will bear the first name of Djibril in homage to the archangel who transmitted the divine message to the prophet of Islam, Mohammed. His determination, his taste for risk, his desire to get out of the cinematographic rut will have got the better of everything, even the puritanical and sanitized framework of his birth. It is behind the camera that he will write the most beautiful pages in the history of African seventh art, as a debonair herald of the most deprived of a society that he often painted in vitriol, but always with style.

Read also Cinema: “Hyènes”, the masterpiece of Djibril Diop Mambéty restored

The visual through sound

It was in the Colobane of the 1950s that Mambéty’s appetite for cinema was sharpened through sound. For Mambéty, in the beginning was sound, music. What’s more normal ! Didn’t Verlaine see in music the soul of poetic art? Who better than himself to recount the founding moment which will forever seal his attachment to cinema. “I grew up in a place called Colobane, where there was an open-air cinema called the ABC. We were very young – 8 years old – and we were not allowed to go out at night, because the neighborhood was dangerous. Despite this, we ran away from home and went to the movies. Since we didn’t have the money for a ticket, we watched the films from outside. They were mostly westerns and Hindu films. My favorite movies were westerns. Perhaps this is why I attach so much importance to sound in my films, since I listened to films for many years, before seeing them, ”he confided in 1995 to the programmer. Guyanese June Givanni.

It is therefore not surprising to find in his various productions this pronounced taste for music, exploring traditional and modern rhythms. Fine ear, he will involve in the design of his soundtracks talented composers, often unknown to a large audience: the master of the kora Djimo Kouyaté (1946-2004) in Contras’city, in Badou Boy, we find the famous Senegambian korist Lalo Kéba Dramé, to whom he offered a magnificent opportunity to sublimate himself, the saxophonist Issa Cissoko, who died in March 2019, intervenes in The franc while the expertise of his brother Aziz “Wasis” Diop is mobilized on the soundtrack of The Little Sun Vendor.

Read also Sellou Diallo: “Supporting the renewed energy of Senegalese cinema”

Committed and iconoclastic

Diop Mambéty never stopped putting his art at the service of his people for whom he was a committed filmmaker, even at times flayed and enraged. Often praised for his peerless qualities as a technician and an absolute master of aesthetics, Djibi was much more than that. For him, in fact, the artist’s duty “is to aggress”. And he attacked, in the most poetic sense that one can find in the end! His stay in prison for some 5 weeks, in Rome, arrested for having taken part in a demonstration of the Italian left against racism, proves to what extent the man was ready, at the risk of his physical, psychological and perhaps of his career, to follow his ideas and his humanist logic to the end.

His commitment, however, was singular. Singular in that it stood up so much against the social inequities of postcolonial Africa – the social satire in Hyenas is an illustration – that vis-à-vis the sacrosanct codes accepted within the community of African filmmakers of the time. Djibril Diop Mambéty passed for a misunderstood with an explosive style, certainly, but sometimes confusing and too experimental for an African cinema where social realism, even naturalism in the sense of Émile Zola had finished imposing its marks. The disappointment of his first feature film, Touki Bouki, in theaters in Dakar, despite a resounding international success (Critics’ Prize in Cannes and Special Jury Prize in Moscow in 1973), shows the fracture that may exist between the wish of its license and the local public. He had, in any case, understood the full meaning of castigat ridendo mores and the essential complementarity of aesthetics and commitment. He has distilled, wonderfully, humor, aesthetics and social revolt in his achievements, without one aspect taking the upper hand over the other, all in balance … like a tightrope walker.

His fascination with Yaadikone, a controversial figure, hero for some and villainous for others, is the successful expression of his commitment, his unwavering attachment to social justice. This is reflected in all his work. In The franc, he makes his main character Marigo, played by Madieye Massamba Dieye, say: “Him, it’s Yaadikoone Ndiaye. Our Robin Hood to us. The protector of children and the weak. “

Read also Cinema: Mati Diop in the footsteps of Djibril Diop Mambéty

What remains of Mambéty’s work?

Mambéty’s work remains whole, intact and disconcertingly topical. In its wake, talented filmmakers have joined in. Alain Gomis, Gold Standard 2013 at Fespaco with Today, who had great admiration for him, is one of them. Pablo Picasso is said to have once said: “good artists copy, while great artists steal. “In this exercise, it is Mati Diop, daughter of Wasis Diop and niece of Mambéty, who seems to have all the qualities of a brilliant filmmaker. The young director ofAtlantic, Grand Jury Prize of Cannes 2019 succeeding BlacKkKlansman of a certain Spike Lee, will render what is akin to a tribute to Mambéty by directing the documentary film in 2013 A thousand suns which can be read as a continuation of Touki Bouki, whose plot he takes up, by mixing the personal history of the film’s actors with the itinerary of his fictional characters.

In recent years, the restorations of his only two feature films Touki Bouki and Hyenas, on exogenous initiatives, testify to the growing attraction for his work. Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation took charge of rehabilitating Touki Bouki in 2008. The multi-awarded director, author of Freed and of Taxi Driver, to name but a few, will qualify the film as “cinematographic poetry conceived with raw and savage energy”, sorry! Touki Bouki will be named best African film of all time at the Tarifa / Tangier African Film Festival in Spain. Hyenas was brought up to date and to the standards in force, at the initiative of the film’s producer, the French Pierre-Alain Meier, in the Éclair laboratories, in Vanves, France.

The American couple of stars were inspired by the poster of the Senegalese director’s masterpiece for their joint On the Run tour in 2018. And as on the poster, the two lovers are perched on a motorcycle with horns of zebu. © DR

But Mambéty’s influence extends beyond the cinematographic setting. And that is to say the least ! The royal hip-Hop / RnB couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s nod to a cult sequence of Touki Bouki as a visual medium for their second joint world tour in 2018: On the Run II, remains the most tangible proof that the Mambéty spring is far, very far from drying up. Djibril Diop Mambéty was not the man of a generation. He knew, in an extraordinary artistic effort, to develop holistic masterpieces. By fighting against the prosaism of his predecessors, as the work of Anny Wynchank attests, Mambéty demonstrated that all the arts come from a common matrix.

Failing to be honored by the authorities of his country, Djibril Diop Mambéty still arouses, more than two decades after his departure, respect to his compatriots; which says a lot about its intrinsic contribution to the renewal of cinematography as well as its commitment to the service of social change.

Let’s talk about the Senegalese authorities. Isn’t the opportunity offered to them, in these times of nationalist demands in favor of local figures or of debunking the vestiges of the colonial past, to do a work of public salvation by baptizing a place with the name of Djibril Diop Mambéty? Why not in his native Colobane or in Ngor where he lived? That would only be fair. He would deserve much more: the national film library, for example. But in front of elders of the overhanging stature of Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and Ousmane Sembene, it seems, to say the least, improbable.

For my part and for all of his work, I bow:

Gacce ngalama Joob!

Bravo Diop!

* Bandiougou Konaté, researcher in the Institutions, democratic governance and public policies Laboratory, Cheikh-Anta-Diop-de-Dakar University.

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