YEELEN (1987)

Randwick Ritz, Sydney:

Sunday May 05

Lido Cinemas, Melbourne:

Sunday May 12

Rating: Unclassified 15+
Duration: 105 minutes
Country: Burkina Faso, Germany, France, Mali
Language: Bambara and Fula (English subtitles)
Cast: Issiaka Kane, Aoua Sangare, Niamanto Sanogo
Director: Souleymane Cissé



A masterwork of metaphysical realism.” – Richard Brody, The New Yorker

An epic, spellbinding myth brought to life by one of Africa’s greatest filmmakers” - Farah Cheded

Souleymane Cissé’s extraordinary winner of the Cannes Jury Prize is regarded as one of greatest achievements of African cinema. Set in Mali in the 13th Century, it uses the Bambara people’s magic realist belief in time as circular – not linear – always returning to the yeelen (the brightness) that created the world. Based on an ancient oral legend, a sorcerer must escape his jealous shaman father, who fears the magical powers of his son. Travelling across the Mali landscape in search of spiritual enlightenment, he studies the mysteries of the gods; encounters a hyena that tells him he will end a curse; uses a swarm of bees to defeat a local tribe while helping a King to make his wife pregnant; and is constantly searching for his uncle to assist him in defeating his pursuing and vengeful father. The musical score – synthesizers and traditional percussion – comes from celebrated Mali musician Salif Keita and French jazz instrumentalist Michel Portal. 2K restoration.

Introduced by Bruce Koussaba at Ritz Cinemas and Geoff Gardner at Lido Cinemas.

It’s a sign of true genius that a director can summon the rise, fall and subsequent rebirth of the cosmos with such a profound understanding and respect for the shape of things.” – Ed Gonzalez

‘The most beautifully photographed African film ever’…African cinema has all-to-rarely attempted anything as ambitious since.” – David Parkinson, Empire Magazine

By Tony Rayns

Now in his mid-eighties, Souleymane Cissé is one of the giants who forged a modern African cinema in the last quarter of the 20th century.  He was born in Bamako, Mali in 1940 and was a “movie brat” from childhood.  He went to Dakar for his secondary education and returned to Mali in 1960, after the overthrow of Lumumba. Several years later he won a scholarship to study filmmaking under Mark Donskoi at the film school in Moscow, then known as VGIK. Back home he first worked on documentaries for the Ministry of Information; he made his first mid-length film Cinq jours d’une vie (Five Days in a Life) in 1972 and his first feature Den Muso (The Girl, banned in Mali) in 1974. He served a jail term for the supposed crime of accepting French financing.  His subsequent features, Baara (Work, 1978) and Finyé (The Wind, 1982), both won top prizes at the African film festival Fespaco.

Yeelen (1987, translated as either Brightness or The Light) was the first African film to ever win a top prize in Cannes and is often cited as one of the greatest African films ever made. He has made only a few subsequent features, plus the 2013 documentary O Sembène, in honour of the late, great Senegalese novelist and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène. Yeelen stands as his crowning achievement.
Cissé has always been a politically aware filmmaker, but Yeelen prompted one of his few explicitly political statements about his filmmaking. He made it, he told the French magazine Cahiers du cinéma, partly in opposition to European ethnographic movies made in Africa.  He may have had the French ethnographer-filmmaker Jean Rouch in the back of his mind, or even someone like Werner Herzog, but there’s little doubt that the main figure he was targeting was the Italian Pier Paolo Pasolini, who had filmed an explicitly autobiographical version of Oedipus Rex in Morocco in 1967, using largely invented “ethnographic” conventions to read Freud’s interpretation of Sophocles in neo-primitive terms. Cissé’s film centres, like Pasolini’s, on a tyrannical father and his confused son, but it has no trace of psychoanalysis or, indeed, any other western thought. Yeelen tells a tale of an urgently needed generational renewal, framed as a coming-of-age fable, with very specific implications for Mali and other sub-Saharan countries. Politics are never mentioned, but it’s nonetheless a vehemently political film.

The story’s roots, opening captions tell us, are in centuries-old Malian cultural myths, but the setting is deliberately timeless: the story is told in a pre-urban past, which could be either ancient or relatively recent. From the very start, naturalistic vignettes from everyday life are juxtaposed with intimations of larger, cultural/supernatural realities: an intoxicating mixture which gives the film its unique character. The story itself is simple:

Sono, an elderly Bambara tribal leader with an inflated sense of his own power and importance, is seeking to track down and kill his own son, Nianankoro. He has already driven his twin brother Djigui into exile as a blind, hermit seer.  Nianankoro, a young man, is under the protection of his mother, who gives him a sacred jewel and sends him on a quest to find his uncle Djigui.  On his way, Nianankoro effects an accidental rapprochement with the Bambaras’ traditional enemies the Peuls and equally accidentally acquires a Peul wife, the notionally barren Attu, who is soon pregnant with his child. Without even knowing it, Nianankoro’s journey across west African settlements, deserts and mountains immerses him in the komo, the age-old wisdom of the Bambara which contains an understanding of the worlds around and within us. He and Attu find and learn from Djigui just before Sono arrives in pursuit, accompanied by his two bearers who stagger under the weight of the sacred pole he makes them carry. The long-feared confrontation is cataclysmic: it reveals why the film’s title means The Light.  But it is followed by the promise of a renewal.

Cissé suffuses the film in the heat of daylight, the darkness of night, the magic glow of dawns and dusks, yielding images of Africa unlike any seen elsewhere. In fact, the fantastically beautiful visuals carry as much of the meaning as the story itself: it seems likely that a west African viewer would find it no easier to draw clear-cut conclusions from the film than non-African viewers do. However elusive some of the inferences, however baffling some of the folklore, the overall thrust of the narrative is still explicit. Nianankoro, in his symbolic journey from adolescence to manhood, may be one and the same as the boy goatherd twice seen going about his daily business, and his ultimate confrontation with his “evil” father may equate to a young lion encountering an old elephant. But, the film suggests, the ancient wisdoms teach us that some slates need to be wiped clean.
Restored in 2k by Les Films Cissé, the production company of Souleymane Cissé.

Director, Producer, Writer: Souleymane Cissé; Production Companies: Les Films Cissé Atriascop (Paris), Midas Film with the support of the Mali Government and la Ministère de l’Information et de la Culture of Burkina Faso; Photography: Jean-Noël Ferragut, Jean-Michel Humeau; Production and Costume Design: Kossa Mody Keita; Sound: Michel Mellier, Daniel Ollivier; Music: Saif Keita, Michel Portal.

Cast: Issiaka Kane (Nianankoro), Aoua Sangare (Attou), Niamanto Sanogo (Soma), Balla Moussa Keita (Rouma Boll), Soumba Traore (Mah), Ismaila Sarr (Bofing), Koke Sangare (Chief Komo), Youssef Tenin Cissé (Attou as a child).

Mali/Burkina Faso/France/West Germany | 1987 | 105 mins | 4K DCP | Colour | In Bambara and Fula with English subtitles| UC15+

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