Earlier this year, an excited audience filled the Reflet Médicis theater in Paris to rediscover Djibril Mambéty’s Diop’s masterpiece, Hyenas. This movie, directed in 1992 by the Senegalese filmmaker, has slowly but surely come to be ranked among the great movies of World cinema. Recently restored by the French producer Paul-Alain Meier – barely a decade after Touki Bouki’s restoration by Martin Scorsese – the film deals with the triumphant return of Linguère Ramatou (Ami Diakhate) in her native village. Unfairly exiled by the villagers and forced into a life of prostitution in Western countries, the old lady, who is now rich, intends to use her new power to take revenge and to restore her ruined reputation.
Djibril Mambéty Diop created a profound work which tackled corruption in post-independence, as well as social inequality – themes which he addressed both in front of and behind the camera. During the screening of Hyenas, Teemour Mambéty Diop, the son of the late Director, sat down to discuss his thoughts on the film, as well what it was like to grow up with a film director for a father.
Teemour described a family environment in which creativity and the respect for individual aspirations contributed to the personal development of parents and children alike. Bearing in mind the importance of the huge cultural legacy provided by his father, Teemour, far from benefitting the family notoriety, has decided to pursue his own path. However, it’s clear that he feels ready to embrace that legacy and follow in his father’s footsteps as a creative.
One of your father’s masterpieces has just been restored. How did you feel when the film was re-released in theatres?
First of all, I felt relieved given that, as a lover of cinema, [I believe this is a significant piece of filmmaking]. It has [only] been available for [the last] few years, with lower [quality] in terms of screening and broadcasting…In the beginning, [Hyenas was] in the shadow of [his other] masterpiece called Touki Bouki, a movie he directed when he was 29 and for which he was awarded the International Critics Prize at Cannes Director’s Fortnight. So the fact that [Hyenas has finally been] restored and brought back to its 1992 quality is a [fitting tribute] and it enables people to see it.
As a spectator, [having] the privilege to watch the restored film at the latest Cannes Classics edition, I [was able] to rediscover the movie and to see all its wonderful dimensions, in terms of cinematography, styling, scenery, sound design, costumes, acting… [I felt] fascination [, given] that there are only two professional actors in the whole cast and each actor was coached [to give the best performance]… The film is like writing or composing classical music – like many masterpieces, there are movements, and the film is like that, chapter after chapter.
How old were you at the time the film was shot?
I can’t remember […] I was still at school. But I really enjoyed going to the film set at the end of the day to hug my father. It was like a breath of fresh air for him. Then I was making myself small in the corner to observe and I think it may [have been] the beginning of my training […] as a technician in the audio-visual sector. When I am talking about training, I am talking about observation first. It was at that moment that I realised the technical dimension [of] an adventure like the production of a movie.
It was at that time I realised that cinematographic fiction was not an adventure [to] which one could commit without certainty. And, furthermore, this is the reason why I have been practising for a long time and it is [now] becoming a reality [for me] to concretely work on fiction.
How can you explain that this 1992 movie is still a reference for the young generation of directors today?
First, I think it is a very good movie. But I also think that [it tells a] universal story […] It deals with revenge and interactions, but overall it is about power and money in the interaction between human beings and that is [something we can all relate to]. It is not just about Africa, I think, [or] about [inspiring] young directors. I think that everywhere that we have the opportunity to show the film, people among the audience will feel that universality.
Your father’s filmography is a reflection of his character. What was he like to live with?
First of all, I think he is the person who showed me the most respect [from a] very early [age]… I never had the feeling I [was] not respected or [able to] explore my capacities [and] my intelligence, even when I was a kid. As long as I remember, there [was nowhere he wouldn’t take] me, there was [never a time he didn’t] accept me at his side, [no issue was considered] taboo. I think the teachings I received from him are definitely this mutual respect, [and] a dignity, both with oneself and with […] anybody, anywhere.
I think he also inspired me […] to believe in possibilities that we can [produce from within] ourselves, [as well as] the difference between a good idea [worth sharing] and [an idea that flatters] one’s ego. No one can force anyone to [create] a work of art […] and from the moment we’re [making something], one should [it brings something useful to] the table. I realise, after all, that he had a ten-year-career, made [up of only] seven films […] but [those] seven films [have a] dialogue [that] is universal.
I read that your father was very demanding with his little brother, your uncle Wasis Diop. Was he the same with you?
My uncle […] started as a set photographer on (Djibril’s 1970 feature film) Badou Boy and then he embraced his love for music. My father was a great fan of music, among other things, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Jimmy Hendrix… I think that he might also have embraced that love for music vicariously through his little brother’s talent and this is what [made him push Wasis to do better] and maybe this could explain why it was interpreted […] as something demanding. After all, it is a good thing [to be encouraged]!
As for me, I didn’t feel he [was particularly demanding]. [However,] my mother [could be]! Because she has a personality which was dignity and determination incarnate. I feel sorry that we usually [talk to] people [with] famous parents [and act as though their] mother did not exist. My mother was [very] present in my life. My father was more willing to see us doing whatever we wanted. I think that it would have been [surprising] for him to see us living a life of constraints.
Your father was the son of an Imam. What would you say to those who think that the son of an Imam cannot be creatively liberal? Did he have to impose his decision to become an artist on his father?
He didn’t really need to impose it. I know […] my grandfather always respected him very much, even when he was a teenager. He was wondering about [why] my father [would] shut himself up in his room for writing. It should also to be noted that if my grandfather was an Imam, it was his professional choice, a choice which also granted him a social position and enabled him to [work in an area] he was interested in. He was a very open-minded person with a pretty reasonable personality. He was someone with a zen attitude, someone who liked speaking a lot. But he had this kind of natural sweetness, a [concern] for [the wellbeing of] everybody.
I don’t think […] that there was a clash between [creative] freedom, represented by my father, and that more disciplined life [which] my grandfather had. And [like my mother], my grandmother also had a very strong personality, [but also] she was one of the most caring people I had the opportunity to know in [my] life. But she had that thing, that power, a true respect for the members of her family, whatever their age, and was eager to hear from everyone.
Did you have already an idea of what you wanted to become when you were a child, or did you just “go with the flow” from the opportunities that came to you?
Well, I always had various interests […] I wanted to do music, [and] I did it, but one should do it properly. I wanted to write, and I postponed [engaing in this interest]. I said to myself that if I did it, I should do it properly and that has to be done well. [I wanted to create] something [that wouldn’t be left on] a shelf and forgotten. And if I get involved in the audio-visual sector, I want to do it well.
You are involved in music, in the fashion industry, in marketing… You are a fully-fledged artist. How do you define yourself?
Well, I accept the word “artist” [because it’s better than being] considered as a gifted procrastinator! [For me, being a perfectionist who takes him time on projects] is not […] annoying, it is a necessity. It is something beautiful and [I believe] that we have a kind of need for excellence.
I think I will find a way to better define myself… I like expressing things through images, sound, writing, creating objects and events […] the records I did, the poetry I am writing…
I get the impression that your uncle Wasis has passed on his gift for music to you and that your father did the same thing with your cousin, the director Mati Diop, offering her his gift for cinema…
It is like that [with my] family. [Even though I haven’t expressed myself yet in the audio-visual medium yet,] my father granted me with his gift – the fact that I refuse to do a thing until I am [ready to do so to an exceptional level]. Opportunities to make a film [have presented themselves before, but until you truly understand what it means to undertake a project on that scale,] it is not worth getting involved in them. No one can force [you] to make a movie or a record.
Do you think your father felt the same way?
I thought he did things simply because he enjoyed doing them.
No! Otherwise, he would have directed many more movies.
That explains why he shut himself up in his room to write for such a long time…
When we learn how to cook at home, before you [invite people over to try your cooking], you [need to master the] recipe.
So you have been working on an audio-visual project for a very long time…
Working on something for a long time [does not mean the same thing as] working on [a singular] project for a long time. It means that I have been learning [how to create a work of] fiction for a long time. First, [I think one should learn] how to write a story, to [come up with] the idea [for] a story. Then, [one should learn] how to tell a story, to convert [it] into images. One must have a notion of photography. Sound is also used in the [telling] of a story. One must have a notion of sound design, not only [in relation to visual] but to know [how to design sound]. One must be very cultured and have various [points of] references.
[Also,] the notion of acting, the work of actors, must be understood. Because they are the ones who [convey] the meaning of the story and one will have to manage them [on a set]. [You will be] that person who will have to work in [collaboration] with a Director of photography, [an acting coach], a scriptwriter, a sound engineer, hair designers and make-up artists, with editors and colorists. But how can we do that? I [realised that you have to learn how] to become the boss of a film set before [I understood the rest that rest of what is required from this] profession […] and [it is] precisely when we wish to become the boss of a film set, that we […] must learn how to become a good boss on a film set.
But aren’t you afraid of how long that learning process can take?
It does not matter. What is wrong with [taking your time]? What is wrong if, at the end of one’s life, we [have only directed] one film? The most important thing is that it must be a good [film]! So let’s leave […] those who want to tell stories [alone and let them take however long they think is necessary]. There are some well-known authors who wrote [only] one book of poems, one novel… But their work [has become timeless].
Your father has made his contribution to culture. Do you think you have made yours yets?
[In terms of art,] I think I am going to [make mine eventually]. The most important [contribution I’ve made in general is] my children. It is obviously the most crucial one.
[In terms of art, I believe] it is not worth doing [something just to say you’ve done it]. It is all about doing things, but doing them well.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.