In Hyènes, one of only two features made by Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, the village of Colobane has fallen on such hard times that furniture from the town hall is repossessed. The beloved grocer, Dramaan Drameh, can’t even get a customer to pay for rice. But the town has hope: after decades abroad, a former resident named Ramatou is returning to Colobane, bringing a fortune, we are reminded frequently, “greater than the World Bank.” The village welcomes her with open arms: certainly, this prodigal daughter has wealth to share. She arrives via private train with an entourage that includes a Japanese bodyguard, immediately speaking the ruthless dictum of her vengeance: “Everything can be bought.” When she addresses the town, it is to correct their amnesia. She was exiled into a life of prostitution when her lover (the grocer Drameh) refused to admit that the illegitimate child she carried was his, going so far as to enlist lying witnesses to testify to her promiscuity. When confronted, Drameh defends his cruelty as a gift that gave her the opportunity to amass her fortune and see the world. She dangles a trillion dollars over the village with one condition: he must be killed.
Despite the village’s initially hostile reaction (one villager exclaims: “the drought will never turn us into savages”), Ramatou offers an advance. She brings televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, and air conditioners for the people, Cuban cigars for the mayor. Soon, golden pith helmets are a common sight. In one brilliant sequence Ramatou brings a carnival—complete with a roller coaster—to Colobane. When Drameh seeks the advice of a priest, he finds a new television in the chapel and is told to get out of town. But the basis of exchange is Drameh’s death, and when the villagers finally pay their debt (becoming the titular hyenas), nothing is left but a pile of his clothes. The film’s final shots of a menacing bulldozer combing the earth, with the sounds of a jetliner overhead, herald waves of overdevelopment to come.
If the plot is familiar, it’s because the film adapted from Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s dark stage comedy The Visit (1956). Like The Visit, Hyènes is full of allegorical potential, a parable that shows how money corrodes ethics even as it indicts longstanding hypocrisies—in this case, those of the patriarchy. The result is a narrative in which Ramatou’s vengeance is complicated by the persistence of another corrosive paradigm: financial dependency overseen by Western powers. She humiliates the system in which Drameh served as moral arbiter and guardian of exchange, controlling—with a smile—the distribution of goods for which no one could pay from his well-stocked shop. But while money has given Ramatou power, the film emphasizes that power makes no guarantees against the force of history. In his death, Drameh is recast as the lynchpin for an equally prejudicial development strategy, which offers modernization’s commodities in exchange for brutal retrenchments. The film suggests that where one patriarchy is razed, another finds its foundations.
Non-actors populate each of Mambéty’s films, and in Hyènes their presence balances the fabular quality imbued in part by the film’s many animals: elephants, borrowed by the filmmakers from the Masai of Kenya, bookend the film, and watchful hyenas hailed from Uganda. Ami Diakhate’s Ramatou exudes the very bitterness that has turned her bones to metal (she literally has a gold leg). This detail might imply that Ramatou is dominated by inhuman impulses, but the film’s engagement with human and animal entanglements moves beyond a simple binary. At times, her predatory coldness is signaled by the appearance of a hawk. Here the play’s most famous line (“The world made me a whore, so I will make the world a brothel”) is overshadowed by another: “You can’t walk in the jungle with a ticket for the zoo. If you want to share the lion’s feast, then you must be a lion yourself.”
Made in 1992, Hyènes followed decades of international credit crises. Never granted an American wide release, the film takes on new relevance in today. If the most recent fiscal meltdown brought problems of credit to the fore of American and European political consciousness, it was in part at the expense of a focus on those issues in the rest of the world. When a villager announces his imperviousness to Ramatou’s ultimatum with the words, “We are not Americans,” it elicits a necessary collective guilt. Hyènes reminds us that we exported these problems before we recognized them as our own.