Plot: In this epic drama drawing on Bambara culture, which echoes mythic legends in an invented tale, a hero undergoes ordeals that allow him to renovate a decaying society. A young man must penetrate the secrets of the Komo cult (a real caste of specialist knowledge among the Bambara), whose members have abused their spiritual powers. Niamankoro suffers his father's wrath as he travels throughout the Bambara empire and Dogon and Peul societies.
He is in search of the Kore, a long wooden icon that mysteriously holds the key to his search. (Cisse likens it to the tablets of Moses.) His mother gives him one part and explains he must find his father's twin brother, a prophet who has the other part. On his journey, he is challenged by another of his father's brothers, whom he kills, and he spends time with the Peul, where he finds a wife and fathers a son. After a long journey he encounters his father's twin, who explains that the Kome cult has become corrupt.
His father finally catches up with him, and in a showdown they both die, although the boy's wife and son live on, symbols of the purified society he has sacrificed himself for.
"Brightness," the title of the film, resonates with the beginning and closing images of the film, which critic Manthia Diawara in the Library of African Cinema catalog has interpreted as bringing "us face to face with the Big Bang of our own creation. Past and future are reunited; only we in the present must remember and search."
Style: This film diverges sharply from the heretofore social realist style and subject matter of Cisse's work. In a 1988 interview at the DC Filmfest, Cisse explained to Pat Aufderheide, "At the beginning of my work, I didn't have technical material means or the money, and I had a strong desire to make films...So I adopted a realist style. I worked with nonprofessionals, I located my stories in the contemporary period, I chose situations where I would not need artificial lighting." After three successful features, "I allowed myself to dream." The fantasy he envisioned was tempered by the possibilities of filmmaking in Mali, although he managed nonetheless to give the film an epic, even ageless look and tone with its precolonial (even pre-Muslim) setting, animist religion, vaste rural landscapes and iconic characters. Indeed, Cisse was striving for a kind of universality. In interview he commented, "I used the Bambara and Dogon people in Yeelen. But I could have used Zulu people or American Indians. It's something we're able to express for any society. The bad father, for instance, is selfishness." He saw the film having a universal appeal as a result: "People [who don't know Bambara culture] go beyond, they see the history of mankind in that film."
Background on director/film: Cisse has made three earlier feature films, each of them openly concerned with social issues, e.g. the tensions of modernization, workers' organizations and rights, human rights. This film was funded by Burkina Faso, France, German and Japanese TV.
He has also been a leading spokesperson for the importance of African cinema as an expression of cultural autonomy. But for some, Yeelen catered too much to an international audience. In interview, Cisse explained, "The cinema is universal for me. It's not because cinema was created by Europeans, by 'whites'--a term I don't like to use,because I like to talk about mankind, not to refer to color. The person who had the genius to create cinema didn't do it just for himself or his people but for all humanity." Dwelling upon the Africanicity of African films, he argued, was a sign of the art's immaturity in Africa: "The day when African cinema reaches the level of the other cinemas, we won't be talking in these terms."
Film production context: Landlocked Francophone West African nation Mali's greatest claim to cinematic quality is Souleymane Cisse, who shares with Senegalese Ousmane Sembene and, increasingly, Burkina Faso's Idrissa Oudreaougo, the prestige and burden of representing African cinema to the world. It is also home to Cheick Omar Sissoko (see Finzan), another increasingly important filmmaker. Malian government both supports and controls cinematic production.
The Bambara, still the most powerful ethnic group in Mali, ruled a river valley empire for more than 200 years until the late 19th century, as Hilary Bonta described in a student paper at American University. The Dogon, a small but well-known sedentary ethnic group and the nomadic Peul are important minority groups. Each maintains its distinctive culture. The vast majority of the country practices Islam, but animism continues a vital and pervasive belief system. Although Cisse himself is not Bambara, he was able, he asserted, to penetrate Bambara culture because his family had strong ties to the Bambara group.
Bambara religion is referred to throughout Yeelen, as Bonta notes. The supreme deity, Ngola or Bemba, is creator of the universe, with the Help of three spirits, represeting respectively air, wind, and fire; water; and earth. In several versions of a Bambara myth, Bemba destroys the earth in order to create it anew.
Bambara society features ancestor worship, and initiatory brotherhoods, two of which are the Komo and Kore. Komo, explains Bonta, is associated with human knowledge, a powerful and dangerous tool; Kore is the final step in learning, promising transcendance. Initiatory societies bring their members closer to a connection with cosmic reality, says Bonta.
Importance: Yeelen won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival on its release, as well as the British Film Institute award for most imaginative and innovative film of the year. It garnered near universally positive critical reviews in the West, with some calling it the greatest African film yet made. A festival success, its release in the U.S. foundered on the fortunes of Island Pictures distribution, which went bankrupt on the verge of its broad release. It forms part of the Library of African Cinema.
Manthia Diawara, "Souleymane Cisse's Light on Africa," Black Film Review 4:4 (Fall 1988), p. 12f.
Francoise Pfaff, Twenty-five Black African Filmmakers: A critical study, with filmography and bio-bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Library of African Cinema: A Guide to video resources for colleges and public libraries, catalog, California Newsreel, 1991.
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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