review by Richard Porton

Cineaste - America's Leading Magazine on the Art and Politics of the
Cinema 23:2 [December 1997] p.51

Directed by Djibril Diop Mambity, VHS, color, 113 mins.; in Senegalese with English subtitles. Theatrical and homevideo distribution by Kino International, 333 West 39th Street, NYC 10018, phone (800) 562-3330 and nontheatrical distribution by California Newsreel, 149 9th Street, Suite 420, San Francisco, CA 94103, phone (415) 621-6196.

Contemporary African films have been preoccupied with two interlocking themes: the painful legacy of a colonialist past and a concomitant ambivalence towards Western modernity. Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambity's Hyenas (1992) manages to adeptly straddle these two concerns. Hyenas shares the anticolonialist fervor of earlier African films, but also examines the ambiguous legacy of modernization. Neither simplistic agitprop nor (in the vein of other recent African films) a folkloric celebration of village life, Mambity's film can be seen as both an assault on ongoing economic imperialism and a mournful commentary on the current state of African communalism.

Freely adapted from The Visit, the major work by the Swiss playwright Friedrich D|rrenmatt, Hyenas revolves around a wealthy old woman's return to her village--Colobane--where, years before, she was 'seduced and abandoned' by a man who now seems completely benign. Mambity skillfully strips D|rrenmatt's theatrical parable of its quasi theological veneer. The desolate town of Colobane encapsulates many of the contradictions of Senegalese society as both revolutionary hopes and traditional bonds of solidarity become distant memories. Since Third World films often function as political allegories, it is difficult not to notice that Colobane, with its rapacious petty bourgeoisie and seemingly ineradicable poverty, serves as a microcosm reflecting Africa's current economic crisis.

Linguhre Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), the film's vengeful elderly woman, agitates Colobane's population to the point of frenzy by promising a future of untold wealth. ''Ramatou is coming back to us...richer than the World Bank...only the lady can help us'' is the townspeople's hopeful exhortation. The local politicians and clergy, immobilized by despair, view Ramatou's largesse as the only possible solution to the never-ending cycle of poverty and exploitation. Dramaan Drameh (Mansour Diouf), the amiable shopkeeper who never fails to sip Calvados with his eager
customers, awaits the eminent grand-dame with more anticipation than any of the other inhabitants. Ramatou's beneficence ultimately turns sour, and the catastrophic series of events that eventually bedevil Colobane seems designed to frustrate critics and audiences who might be tempted to indulge themselves with moralistic interpretations.

The gruesome carnivalesque crescendo of Hyenas turns out to be a case in point. As the villagers satisfy their cravings for shoes from Burkina Faso and sparkling refrigerators, Ramatou imports an actual carnival to Colobane, with a dazzling Ferris wheel as the fair's centerpiece. If these diversions are meant to pacify the villagers while Dramaan is made a scapegoat, Ramatou's plan succeeds all too well. Despite his genial manner, we have no choice but to accept Dramaan as the man responsible for the millionairess's former life of privation and forced prostitution. Yet Ramatou herself does not embody moral probity of any sort. Unlike the unambiguously affirmative heroines of Sarah Maldoror's Sambizanga and Med Hondo's Sarraounia, Ramatou is not an icon of empowerment. She can offer only the negative freedom of ruthless demystification. And Dramman's plaintive outburst when faced with this woman's fury--''Madam, we hold fast to the principles of our civilization''--evokes more the pain of a self-inflicted wound than the shrillness of a rallying cry.

Hyenas can be viewed as an imaginative response to Immanuel Wallerstein's prophecy (in the mid-1980s) that Africa's integration into ''the socioeconomic hierarchy of the world system'' will exemplify the ''acute suffering for truly peripheral areas whose nonessential exports will find a very weak world market and whose internal food production may collapse further.'' This kind of materialist prognostication finds poetic expression in Mambity's juxtaposition of a Sony sign and shots of starving Africans. Ramatou's delight as she bombards Colobane with commodities of doubtful value represents a fanciful solution to a seemingly insoluble
quandary. Hyenas's final shot--a bulldozer plowing through the residue of the town's short-lived consumerist orgy--aptly sums up Mambity's despondent critique of what has been termed ''the multinational redistribution of scarcity.''

Since Hyenas has been screened only at a handful of film festivals and art houses, this Kino on Video release will certainly help to familiarize viewers with a landmark film. While home video cannot do complete justice to Mambity's vibrant colors and jagged editing rhythms, it is heartening to know that a new audience can now discover a film that was shamefully neglected by most of the critical establishment.