Family Ties

Melissa Anderson on Mati Diop’s A Thousand Suns

Mati Diop, A Thousand Suns, 2013, color, sound, 45 minutes.

MATI DIOP’S LUSH AND ELEGANT A Thousand Suns requires only forty-five minutes to astutely consider weighty matters of history and legacy. Loosely described, this medium-length work is a portrait of Magaye Niang forty years after the Senegalese nonprofessional actor starred in Touki Bouki (1973), a milestone of African cinema directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty, Diop’s uncle. More provocatively, A Thousand Suns destabilizes the distinction between fact and fiction; as Diop herself told Cinema Scope magazine, “The friction and two-way shuttling between reality and myth is the main subject of my film.”

As Diop’s film begins, Niang is seen leading a herd of cattle across busy Dakar streets; on the sound track, Tex Ritter’s mournful theme song to the western classic High Noon (1952) plays. Despite Niang’s cowboy boots, the choice of music seems incongruous at first. But the relevance of the opening lyric of Ritter’s ditty—“Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’ ”—becomes clear soon enough. Themes of renunciation—of a country, a lover, an identity—recur throughout A Thousand Suns, echoing similar concerns brought up four decades earlier in Touki Bouki.

In the earlier film, a vibrant, lysergic, disjunctive look at Senegal, at the time only a little more than a decade removed from French rule, Niang plays Mory, a motorcycle-riding renegade who teams up with his university-student girlfriend, Anta (Mareme Niang), to steal the money needed to leave Dakar and travel by ocean liner to France. Mory abandons the voyage at the last minute, after Anta has already climbed aboard; on deck, she is surrounded by racist blancs who insist, “African art is a joke made up by journalists in need of copy.” Mory and Anta, lithe, haughty dandies who at times resemble brother and sister, are the coolest, most charismatic outlaw couple of the 1970s.

Forty years on, Niang, his gait considerably slower and his hair a nimbus of more salt than pepper, still retains much of the grace and allure of his younger self, even if his spouse—or is she simply an actress playing a part?—hectors him about his tattered clothes (“With your torn jeans, who do you think you are? Johnny Hallyday?”). She is concerned that Niang look presentable for an outdoor screening of Touki Bouki; in response to her browbeating, he boasts, “Where I am going, I am a star!” The cattle herder’s swagger, however, is inconstant—post-screening, Niang laments to his buddies, “I played a role, and that was it.”

Whether or not Niang is playing “himself” or another role in A Thousand Suns is impossible to answer and ultimately beside the point. In the Cinema Scope interview, Diop notes, “The sole element of reality that I kept in my film is that Magaye Niang stayed in Dakar and [Mareme] Niang”—Touki Bouki’s Anta—left for Alaska. That Mareme, just as the character she played in her only screen performance to date, moved abroad resonates with another permanent departure: Mambéty’s death, at age fifty-three, in 1998. (Ten years after her uncle died, Diop memorably made her screen debut in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum.) In a phone call between Magaye and Mareme, the former speaks this line, repurposed from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room: “You don’t have a home until you leave it, and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.” In revisiting her relative’s masterwork, Diop resurrects those who might otherwise have been forgotten.

Mati Diop’s A Thousand Suns, along with her 2009 short, Atlantiques, screens at New York’s Museum of Modern Art January 20–27; Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki screens at MoMA January 20, 24, and 25.