Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame, literally “the visit of the old lady”) is firmly ensconced in the modern theatrical repertoire. It’s been done as a straight play, of course, but also adapted as a musical and an opera, and has served as the basic for both movies and television programs. The original play is also taught in German classes—I studied it at the University of Nebraska many years ago—and it has also been translated into many languages. This eduring appeal lies, I think, in the play’s combination of dark humor and serious ethical questions, and both aspects are on display in one of the more unusual takes on this story, Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film Hyenas.
Mambéty’s version is set in Colobane, a Senegalese village seriously down on its luck. The center of town life is a shop owned by Draman Drameh (Mansour Diouf), where women come to purchase household necessities and men come to hang out all day. Draman is a good-humored guy who enjoys his position as the unofficial mayor of Colobane’s down-and-outers and always has time to chat and joke with his customers.
Something big is about to happen in Colobane—the fabulously rich LInguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), a now-elderly woman who grew up in the village, is returning for a visit. Everyone is at great pains to get on her good side, hoping she will favor them with some of her millions, and she offers to do just that, but as payment rather than a gift—in return, she wants the villagers to kill Draman. And why would she set that condition? Because, when she was young and innocent, he impregnated her, denied it, and bribed witnesses to testify falsely on his behalf, with the result that she was basically ridden out of town on a rail and forced to become a prostitute to support herself and her child.
To Draman, this is all ancient history, and he claims to not understand why she’d be carrying a grudge after so many years. At first the townspeople claim that they would never take this terrible bribe—they’re not murderers, no matter how poor they may be—but Linguere, who’s had plenty of opportunity to observe human nature, says simply “I’ll wait.”
She doesn’t have to wait too long. Soon, the townspeople are sporting expensive new shoes and buying Draman out of his best tea and chocolate. The chief of police shows off a new gold tooth, the mayor is smoking fancy cigars, and the local church acquires a brand new chandelier. Linguere notes that “the reign of hyenas has come,” and before long you get to some see actual hyenas intercut with shots of the townspeople. It’s a little on the nose, perhaps, but since this play is basically a grand drama of revenge, such stylistic flourishes are not entirely out of place.
Mambéty has spoken of his film as portraying the corrupting influence of Western influence and money on African countries, but there’s more than one way to interpret the story. The unquestioning sexism of the male characters is also satirized, although they break ranks soon enough when there’s serious money on the table. The film’s structure is episodic, with segments taken nearly verbatim from Durrenmatt’s play intercut with long shots of the countryside or performances of traditional song and dance, and the characters deliver their lines in a presentational rather than naturalistic style. Together, these elements create the effect of Brechtian distancing, so that instead of being swept along with the story, you notice what is happening and are able to reflect on it. That’s a good thing, because there are plenty of philosophical points suitable for discussion in Hyenas, which I see as basically being all about power: who has it, what they do with it, and what it feels like when you lose it. | Sarah Boslaugh
Hyenas is distributed on DVD, Blu-ray, and digitally by Kino Lorber. I reviewed this film from a screening link, but the Kino Lorber web site says the disc include an audio commentary by film scholar Boukary Sawadogo, a book with an introduction by Rooney Elmi and an interview with Djibril Diop Manbéty, and trailers.