There’s a romantic attraction to the unfamiliar, and enjoying the exotic can be refreshing and provide new perspective. I imagine the Buddharūpa I encounter in films and museums could be seen as kitsch by people who grow up with them. Locals here in Northwest Arkansas dismiss Christ of the Ozarks as “Milk Carton Jesus,” but might a visitor from Tibet find a pilgrimage to Magnetic Mountain spiritually transcendent?
Exoticism is the normal way we’re taught to experience other cultures through film and television. This is true whether it’s an English family living along the Ganges in the 1951 film The River, or an English MI6 agent foiling corporate blackmail in Turkey, Japan or Brazil, or an English policeman solving crimes in Wales in S4C’s Hinterland.
This is how the Bonnie & Clyde couple at the center of Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 Touki Bouki experience Paris. They feel like they don’t fit in in Senegal, and make plans to illegally emigrate to France. A short excerpt from Josephine Baker’s song “Paris Paris” plays on the track whenever they make progress to their goal, the light, trite tone reminding us that Mory and Anta’s are two people who know Paris primarily from songs and movies.
Mambéty knows audiences outside Senegal with approach his movie from this same perspective – as will many people inside Senegal. So, he uses the symbols a romantic might see as “authentic” or “exotic,” and then puts them in context.
Two brief examples of what might be called “strategic exoticism:” The film opens with a young shirtless cattle herder riding a Zebu. The long, postcard-worthy shot cuts to a graphic scene of the cattle being slaughtered at a meat plant.
Later in the film, Senegalese gather at a stadium to watch a traditional sport – which we learn is to raise money for a new monument to Charles de Gaulle.
Mambéty uses other strategies as well to try and show us the complexity of contemporary Senegal. After the Zebu scene, Mambéty brings us to a small community where our protagonist lives. He gives us time to look, and listen. He shows us laundry hanging over wooden houses, a student in slacks and a shirt writing and drinking bottled water, a woman selling produce at a market, and a man delivering mail at a radio store. He hear an airplane fly by, a baby cry, a Muslim call to prayer, a siren sound, and a mother lecture her daughter over the man she is dating.
The camera enters the scene tracking the mailman, and the initial movement in the scene all follows his journey. The mailman is the one person in a society who sees everyone. Mambéty is teaching us from the outset that one viewpoint alone can’t tell the story of Senegal.
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.