It took legendary Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty 19 years after his barnstorming 1973 debut film, Touki Bouki, to deliver his sophomore film. Hyenas, released in 1992, is loosely based on Fredrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play “The Visit,” and it would ultimately prove the final feature film from a man who refused to view himself as a filmmaker. Of course, his cinematic legacy has since been carried on by his niece, Mati Diop (Atlantics), but Mambéty remains one of the most towering figures in African cinema specifically and in world cinema as a whole, despite only directing two feature-length films. Set in the small provincial town of Colbane, Senegal, Hyenas tells the story of Dramaan Drameh (Mansour Diouf), a popular local merchant who one day finds himself standing against a riled mob when a jilted lover from his past — whom he previously abandoned to raise his child — returns to the town to seek revenge. Now wealthy beyond measure, Linguère Ramatou (Ami Diakhate) offers a handsome reward to the entire town if one of them will kill Dramaan Drameh. At first, the villagers are shocked by her murderous proposal, but life in Colbane is soon to be forever changed as suspicions begin to run high and villagers begin to turn on Dramaan Drameh, leaving him at the mercy of human avarice and corruptibility.
Not unlike the more contemporary (and, as of this writing, reigning Best Picture winner) Parasite, Hyenas is a scathing indictment of capitalism (told microcosmically) boasting a title that is a pointed description of its characters. But, also like Parasite, the titular hyenas are something of a misdirect. Are the villagers who eventually demand Dramaan Drameh’s head the cackling wild dogs out for blood, or is it the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, whose colonialist influence on West Africa comes into sharp focus here? If money is the root of all evil, then it is also very much the root of all the problems in Hyenas — from the village’s initial impoverishment to the dehumanizing effect of its return, promising riches beyond measure for anyone willing to set aside their humanity in pursuit of material excess. And it’s precisely that slow and subtle unwinding of the crowd that makes Hyenas such an engaging work. Linguère Ramatou knows that all she has to do is plant a seed by suggesting that there is a chance that the villagers could become wealthy like her, then sit back and watch the village destroy itself, its inhabitants tearing each other apart like hungry jackals, all for a chance to rise above their circumstances. Mambéty boldly takes what is essentially a comedy of human foibles and turns it into a deeply unsettling exploration of the degenerative ravages of capitalism. Linguère Ramatou dangles a golden carrot in front of an entire village, a mere hint of the possibility of great wealth, and fiddles through the ensuing fire. It’s a haunting, dreamlike, often absurd morality play, told with roguish mischievousness that only Mambéty could conjure. Beautifully restored and rendered on Kino Lorber’s recent Blu-Ray release, Hyenas couldn’t feel more timely, an eternally relevant portrait of class struggle upended by bad-faith agents who profess to have the best interests of the people at heart, but who ultimately only see them as a means to an end. Mambéty may have passed away in 1998 at the age of 53, but the two towering works he left behind remain disarmingly contemporary.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.