Hyenas is a parable which lends itself to meanings inferred by the viewer. One overriding theme encompasses all the various strands of the plot, one comprised of the examination of the modern condition itself without particular regard to place or time. The origin of concept in the film is deliberately confused; a story taken from Switzerland is reset in Senegal without dislocation, and standard notions of ideology are subverted by the involvement of the public. The film is remarkable for its cinematic proficiency, but it is more impressive in that it moves beyond `traditional' conventions of Third Cinema. Racial motives do not drive events. Political struggle is not an issue. Colonialism is long past. True, economic conditions are harsh but the plight of poverty is not limited to Africa. The town of Colobane is a key symbol of the parable, the product of capitalism itself, separated from the implications of colonialism. The dying town is heavy with the trappings of the bankrupt Western ethos. Mambety uses the universality of the veneer of civilization to probe the modern psychology, to attack the underpinnings of Western ideology without regard to place.
Richard Porton in "Mambety's Hyenas: Between Anti-Colonialism and the Critique of Modernity" describes in elaborate detail the various implications of the plot of the film. While it is beyond the scope of this review to analyze the "thematic tapestry ... geared more toward narrative polyphony", it is instructive to develop the author's views with regard to the condition of modernity. Porton dismisses the idea that the parable is too rigid a form to allow direct communication between the filmmaker and the audience. He argues that it speaks to the pervasive sense of "brokenness" felt by both those suffering at the hands of enforced capitalism and those who try to depict both hardship and hope. While an allegory contains overt moral messages, the parable implies subtle meanings often misconstrued. Mambety uses the latter to put into question the location of Colobane. Situations of strife are in every case unseen; the tension of impending violence is present but unresolved. The drinkers demanding drink, the Mayor who offers inducements as blinders, the inevitability of the fate of Dramaan, all are questions that demand the response of the viewer. The film conveys modernity in its own referential origin, and in numerous glosses of Eurocentric imagery. Shots of the prototypical elephant or hyena during the prototypical safari, with obvious meanings given to the placid Western audience al a a "Wild Kingdom" alternate with dull black-and-white documentary of atrocities from the past. Superimposed images of construction and reconstruction, the nearly violent tearing of the earth, tear audience attention away from individualism. One is left with a reading based on assumptions, and a song that warns of the Ramatou bird and counsels "Get to work and stop talking ... to find freedom." The song is a mockery of the work ethic. Ramatou states that the residents of Colobane are "living a lie." The Mayor declares that "we may be suffering drought but we are not animals." Ultimately, the town turns on Dramaan without ever acknowledging its own role. They disguise as justice the money they crave. The Mayor begs Dramaan to leave the town, but the townspeople prevent it without touching him. The Mayor cannot believe he has declined. The people have descended to savagery, but they are not willing to admit it. By pretending to vote for city councils they are modern by any account, no matter their actions. Ramatou is capitalism, and Colobane is the product of capitalism. The Elders meet at the `Hyena Hole' to discuss policy. They don't notice the deathly hermit, who doesn't notice them. The utilization of psychological repercussion rather than political exhortation is, as Porton argues, a "strategy [that] allows the film to continually circle around the political and social traumas that animate the narrative." The parable is applicable beyond its scope within the context of African impoverishment. The people of Colobane are faced with the unthinkable, and have no choice but to release all value for the sake of money. It is a choice many are making, but few admit.
Porton, R. (1995). "Mambety's Hyenas: Between Anti-Colonialism and the Critique of Modernity", Cineaste.