(Mali/Burkina Faso, 1987, 105 minutes, color, 35mm)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
It is the 13th century, in the time of the Malian Empire. Nianankoro, a young man, sets off on his initiation journey through the bush. His father, Soma, a priest who has become corrupted from exposure to the soul-changing power of his magic, pursues him, intent on ending Nianankoro's quest to become a man before it can be completed, before Nianankoro can claim some of the authority of his father. Nianankoro understands that he must gather additional power before he can break his father's will -- or kill him. In greens and golds under a shining Malian sky, their fears and ambitions collide, in a story that feels even more ancient than the epoch in which it is set. For, to destroy Soma's influence over him, Nianankoro must also engage the spiritual foundations of the world. Soma invites the gods to destroy his son, and Nianankoro invokes the powers of the earth in his defense. Theirs is a trial of and by the African elements themselves, heat, fire, and light.
Cissé has woven this tale of generational conflict in a tapestry of mythology as dense as any the cinema has seen. The worldview of these characters is not offered as a set of exotic practices or curious traditions; instead, it is lived as truth. Bambara custom is presented in Yeelen not as festival culture, to be tasted for a moment like a strange dish at an ethnic street fair and then forgotten in favor of one's own cuisine, but as that cuisine itself, the food of life. Few works of any culture have succeeded as Yeelen does in thus not only speaking simultaneously to a culture, and for it, to an outside world which has a long history of patronizing those customs. Cissé sees the spirit world as one of intense vitality and presence, dissolving the Western boundaries of inner and outer humanity, past and present. This is, for instance, a place in which the hypnotic, handmade rhythms of the drum and the chant live joyfully with modern jazz. (His soundtrack brings together Malian vocalist Salif Kefta and French jazzman Michel Portal.) Likewise, Cissé's storytelling style disdains linearity, borrowing instead the circular form of the oral tale. Western ideals of causality, with their assumption that humans can know the answers to their own lives as they can fully know (and thus command) the world around them, is ignored here, as Cissé sends scenes and stories streaming to us which have a sense of adjacency to one another, but rarely give the easy satisfactions of Hollywood's archly constructed narratives. Grumpy critics have called this approach "primitive." Yet, what could be less primitive than a storyteller who demands that we see the universe as it is, not as it might be in some infantile fantasy of control, instantly knowable and without mystery? And if Cissé's is a view of existence where the human being insists on a prideful, prominent place, it is also one which honors the non-human natural world, its trees and animals and water, as powerful creations in their own right.
In order to present his interwoven world of humanity and spirituality, land and consciousness, Cissé relied on the talents of Jean-Marie Feragut and Jean-Michel Humeau to photograph the Malian deserts and groves with a fresh, clear eye. Their work is among the beautiful in recent cinema; their images make us feel as if we are seeing sub-Saharan Africa finally as it wants to be seen, freer from the cultural interference of a Westernized, National Geographic-style frame of reference than it has ever been. Cissé's language is utterly his own. He makes us feel as though every shot is chosen with complete disregard for cinematic convention, and that he is intent at every moment on using exactly the right filmic device to speak his tale and enact his ritual, regardless of whether that device is "normal" or not.
Yeelen is not ethnographic. Its voice is not distant or objective. It uses one of the most Western of cultural forms, film, to speak its own, emphatically non-Western mind.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.