YEELEN/BRIGHTNESS (Mali, 1987, 105 min.), directed and produced by Souleymane Cissé; screenplay by Souleymane Cissé; cinematography by Jean-Noël Ferragut and Jean-Michel Humeau; music by Salif Keita and Michel Portal; edited by Dounamba Coulibaly; costume and production design by Kossa Mody Keita;with Isiyako Kane (Niankoro), Awa Sangare (Atou, the Peul mother of his son), Nyamanto Sanogo (Soma, his magician father and Djigui his twin brother), Balla Moussa Keita (Rouma Boll, the Peul king), Soumba Traore (Mah, the mother), Ismaila Sarra (Bofing, his other uncle), Youssouf Tenin Cissé (his son), Koke Sangare (the Master of the Komo). In Bambara and Peul with English subtitles.
Born in Bamako, Mali, in 1940, Souleymane Cissé is one of Africas pre-eminent directors, with a varied body of creative work. As a young man, he worked as a photographer and a projectionist in Mali. From 1963 to 1969 he studied filmmaking in Moscow at the State Institute of Cinema, where a number of other future African directors (including the great Ousmane Sembène) received a firm grounding in the technical art of cinema under the accomplished Soviet director Mark Donskoi.
Cissé returned to Mali in 1969, where he went to work for the Ministry of Information as a documentary filmmaker. He made his first short fiction film, Five Days in a Life, in 1972, then his first feature, Den Muso/The Young Girl, in 1975. This was followed by Baara/The Porter in 1978, Finyé/Wind in 1982, Yeelen/Brightness in 1987, and Waati/Time in 1995.
His films have received numerous awards at international festival, including the Jury Award for Best Film at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival for Yeelen. Cissé was recently named the recipient of the fifth annual Genevieve McMillan and Reba Stewart Fellowship for Distinguished Filmmaking at Harvard.
Along with his work as a director, Cissé has been a tireless advocate for African cinema, and just last week organized an important gathering of filmmakers in Bamako. It is a great honor to have Souleymane Cissé with us in Portland for the opening of the 15th Cascade Festival of African Films.
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The rich imagery and symbolism are carefully depicted to achieve a specific goal and significance, which is to invite the spectator to seek for the deeper meaning which transcends the literary meaning of what the entire film signifies. Souleymane Cissé
Ta makes fire
Dye fia And the two worlds--earth and sky--exist through light
Set in the timeless period of myth and legend, Yeelen opens in the land of the Bambara people. Niankoro Diarra is a young Bambara, son of Soma Diarra, adept in the secret society of the Komo ritual, descendent of a long line of powerful magicians. His mother too is a woman of great power, and wisdom. While Niankoro was still in his mothers womb, his father had a vision that he would die at the hands of his son. From that moment onwards, the father is determined to see that this does not happen, and does all in his considerable power to bring about his sons demise. The mother spirits her newborn away and keeps him hidden until he reaches manhood. It is at that point that the film itself begins.
The mother gives her son a magic talisman to protect him, along with a pyramid-shaped crystal that is imbued with tremendous power: the Eye of the Koré. She then sends him away to find his fathers twin brother, Djigui, who resides in the land of the Dogon people. This is a very painful moment for them both, as they clearly regard each other with great tenderness and mutual respect. Niankoro has never before been far from his mother, and it seems clear that they will never see each other again.
He manages to escape Bambaraland just as his father and his fathers compliant younger brother Bafing are about to close in on him, guided by a magic pylon. He meets a spirit in the form of a hyena-man, who encourages him with a prophecy, "Your road will be good, your destination happy, your future is grand, your life radiant, your death luminous." The forests and rivers of the Bambara have given way now to the parched, scrub Sahel desert of the Peul people. Finding this stranger in their midst, a group of Peul warriors capture the young man, bind him, and take him to Rouma Boll, their king.
At this point the story cuts briefly back to the mother, who is bathing in a swamp, her upper torso naked. A number of bowls, filled with milk, are floating in the water. She pours bowl after bowl of milk over her head and, kneeling in the water, calls out to her guardian spirit: "Do you hear this, forlorn creator, goddess of the swamp, mother of mothers? Save my son. Save this land from ruin. Dont allow weeds to overcome land of Diarra." For the first time, we realize that the fate of the Bambara and their land is tied up with the fate of Niankoro and his father. It is a remarkable imagerivulets of white milk flowing over the ancient, jet-black torso and grizzled hair of the motherbeautiful, and charged with symbolism (maternal sustenance, wisdom, and identification with nature). It comes in marked contrast to the arid sterility of the Peul landscape where Niankoro stands imprisoned (the contrast emphasized when we cut back to Niankoro and see the young Peul warriors drinking milk, refusing to share it with their thirsty captive).
Once he is before the king, the young magicianperhaps newly empowered by his mothers supplication to the godshas no difficulty in casting off his bonds and paralyzing all who oppose him. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the land of the Peul, an invading army is contesting the main army of Rouma Boll. The champions of the two armies engage in a duel, which is won by the champion of the invaders. Nothing now stands between the invaders and the destruction of the Peul but the considerable powers of Niankoro. The king promises the young man countless rewards and his choice of Peul maidens if he will conquer this enemy. Niankoro agrees, and defeats them with fire and swarms of bees.
Before Niankoro can take his leave, the king asks him for one last favor: his youngest wife, Attou, is barren, and he wants Niankoro to use his power to help her become pregnant. After Attou gives the young man a bowl of fresh milk, the two go off and Niankoro succeeds in making her pregnantbut it is his own son that she will bear, as they are overcome by the magic of passion. They confess to the king that they lost control and betrayed his confidence, and Niankoro offers his life in penance. Instead, revealing his essential good nature, the king sends them away together, banishing them to the land of the Dogon, where his uncle Djigui can be found.
After a fascinating sequence in which we see Soma and his fellow elderly Komo adepts engaged in a ritual ceremony that culminates in the cursing of the son, Niankoro and Attou arrive in the beautiful, spiritually-rich land of the Dogon, a rich, mountainous area adjacent to the vast plain. The Dogon people live in caves cut into the mountainside. Niankoro asks permission to visit their land, and is told that he and Attou must bathe in the purifying waters of the holy Bongo spring. They are then at last taken to his blind uncle, Djigui.
Djigui, who has the gift of prophecy, tells his nephew that Attou is pregnant with his son, and that his son is "destined to be a bright star." He goes on to extend his prophecy to the entire Bambara people: "What I foresee is nothing good for the Bambara. The countrys future hangs by a thread." His familys fate is emblematic of the fate of the Bambara: "Since the dawn of time, the Diarras have been the placenta and the umbilical cord of the Bambara." He has a vision of the future in which his peoples descendents will become slaves and will come to deny their heritage and their religion. Outsiders will come to dominate their land. But ultimately, following this suffering and this spiritual banishment, a cycle of renewal will follow. "All upheavals are full of hope. . . . Life and death are like scales, laid one upon another."
Djigui then explains the reason that he is blind, which is the same reason that he lives apart from his twin. When he was a young man, he asked their father to reveal the secrets of Komo to everyone, so that everyone could share in its power. His father, outraged at the notion that the powers of the Diarra would be dissipated in this way, unleashed the power of the Koré Wing upon him, and Djigui was immediately blinded and banished. He took with him the Wing of the Koré, but bereft of its powerful Eye, which was given to his twin. Now that Niankoro has come to him with the Eye (which his mother had spirited away from her husband), the power of the Wing is restored, and given to the young man.
Niankoro confronts his father at last, asking to be recognized and allowed to die like a true Diarra. His father sees nothing but the object of his hatred, and the two magicians duel, taking on the forms of different animals and finally unleashing the full powers of their fetishes, so powerful that both are destroyed and the land is turned into desert.
The film then concludes in an epilogue imbued with an opaque ritualism. A boy (presumably the son of Niankoro and Attou) digs one of two huge eggs (presumably all that remains of Niankoro and his father) from a sandbank on which the Wing of Koré is placed. He carries the egg to Attou, who has been wearing Niankoros cloak. She removes the cloak and gives it to the boy in exchange for the egg, then carries it back to the Wing and reburies it. She picks up the Wing, gives it to her son, and they walk off together. We are left with a mysterious, but deeply satisfying sense of a circling-round, of rebirth, of both continuity and a new direction following the apocalypse.
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This is a very rich film. The viewer can simply savor the power and resonance of images that have their own self-contained, elemental beautyimages of fire, water, milk, and trees. Its narrative is open to interpretation on a number of different levels. Cissé himself has argued this point, conceding that many viewers will never be able to fully comprehend all of the films arcane narrative:
It invites the spectator to go deeper in imagining the significance of the Komo beyond the literal meaning of the song, beyond the film. One looks for the codic meaning of the song, which is most important because it contains the secrets of the universe. My film positions the spectator in the midst of these secrets and keeps him/her busy looking, interpreting, exploring. It is this level of the film that is incredibly exciting for the Malian spectator. For the spectator who is not initiated, I mean the American, French or British, I am sure that the film is perceived literally. I mean that this spectator hears the ritualistic song, reads its translation; but, this direct translation is not what is expressed in the film. The sentences are codified and refer to other objects which obey the rules of a specific knowledge. The rules of this knowledge can only be decoded by initiates of the Komo.
Along with this spiritual dimension that underlies the films allegory, there does exist an equally important and vital political dimension. Soma and the "men of power" that surround him and support him are emblematic of an aged ruling class that is incapable of relinquishing power to the next generation. (In other African films, such as Idrissa Ouedraogos Tilaï or Ousmane Sembènes Xala, this tendency takes the form of old men acquiring much younger second or third wives, beautiful young women who ought to be matched with young men.)
Tramping (and trampling) through the countryside with his magic piller and obedient slaves, immolating chickens and other sacrificial victims in order to work his will, refusing to control his passions and his desires, Soma continually violates the natural order of the world. A proper respect for the natural order requires one to patiently submit to the natural cycles of aging and succession. Somas power, on the contrary, derives from the deliberate, willed deviation from the natural order, harnessing the power released by this unnatural transgression.
This is not to say that the film sets up a simplistic dichotomy between young and old. The films two most positive figures are Niankoros mother and his uncle Djigui. They both serve as founts of ancient wisdom and advocates for connection and spiritual generosity. Young Niankoro inherits the wise tendencies of the "good twin," tendencies that are nurtured by his mother in his fathers (fortunate) absence. In addition, the Peul king, Rouma Boll, comes across as a decent, self-controlled ruler.
Though set in a time far from history, Yeelen clearly reflects Malis contemporary situation in 1987, when Mali was firmly in the grips of the military dictatorship of Moussa Traoré. Cissé has acknowledged the difficulty that he would have had in mounting a direct critique of the regime: "As my own experiences have shown, what you narrate may also put you into trouble. Sometimes in order to survive a hostile environment one is forced, not necessarily to disarm, but to construct a narrative that is not too political nor devoid of pungent criticism of the system" (in Ukadike, Questioning African Cinema, 21).
It is difficult not to connect Niankoro with the young men and women who were willing to risk their lives for positive change in the last days of the Traoré regime. Looking within the tradition, taking guidance from those elders whose connection with the positive aspects of the tradition remains intact, they are attempting a synthesis of tradition and the modern. These are people who know how to listen to the song of the Sankofa bird--those who heed the values of the past in order to proceed to a moral, community-building vision of the future. From the vantage point of 1987, the film predicts the violent upheavals of 1991 that would produce many sacrifices, but ultimately new hope for the generations to come.
It has long been the role of the West African griot (the traditional chronicler/bard/oral storyteller) to preserve community through the magic and powerful beauty of his/her art. It has also been part of the griots heritage to tell the authority figure, or the people at large, when their conduct is out of balance with the traditional ideals of respect for nature, for ancestors, for community, for future generations. The griots narratives, even when they appear on the surface to be straightforward chronicles or mythic tales, frequently serve as disguised critiques of current repressive regimes or indirect reminders that contemporary cultural and social practices have veered away from the traditional ideals of balance with and harmony within the natural world, the ancestral world, and the communal world.
Soulemane Cissé is clearly a griot for our times.
Notes by Michael Dembrow
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