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Directed by Cheick Oumar Sissoko

(France/Mali, 1999, 102 minutes, color, 35mm)

Sotigui Kouyate, Salif Keita, Balla Moussa Keita

The 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:

This Biblical tale is set in the scrub and chaparral of Mali's Hombori Tondo escarpment, one of the most austere and beautiful places in the world. The landscape is harsh, yet emotionally lush, in Lionel Cousin's moody long shots and still compositions. Genesis recounts the epic feud between Jacob and Esau in the Book of Genesis, 300 years after the great flood. The film stirs an ancient welter of faith greed, and envy into a frighteningly modern parable of religious hatred. Jacob and Esau's conflict corrodes their souls, but the more urgent question for Sissoko is whether this bitter schism can be healed before it tears apart their family for generations. Which will it be -- a dynasty of hate, or a legacy of love? A masterwork of the modern diasporic cinema movement, Genesis' deep understanding of its setting (The Village Voice's Elliott Stein compared it to John Ford's lyrical use of Monument Valley) makes it simultaneously a poem for those who have gone on ahead, and an elegy for those who remain, each seeking to wash the blood from the rocks.

Sissoko's Kora Film collective and the cultural center and library he has endowed in Bamako are important sites for young filmmakers and other artists to gather energy and ideas, and Sissoko is an ideal father figure/griot in that quest. In Sissoko reside two personalities, the objective analyst of culture, and the subjective, eccentric artist, fused in the figure of the ancestral storyteller. Born in 1945, Sissoko took degrees in African History and Sociology and in film in France A filmmaker since 1982, Sissoko's body of work makes him one of the continent's most significant cultural figures. Sissoko became Mali's minister of culture in 2002, and has remained in that post after the transition to power of Issoufi Ousmane Maiga, in 2004. Indeed, Sissoko is one of the steadying influences in a democracy that has proceeded by political fits and starts since declaring independence from France in 1960.

Sissoko has been at the center of Mali's postcolonial history, and though he is now a part of the establishment, he sees himself as always in an oppositional stance toward political and artistic convention, skeptical of entrenched power and unreflective art. One of Mali's leading cultural activists, Sissoko found himself advising the forces of resistance, including unions and students, after the 1968 coup, and again after the 1991 violence which climaxed the first phase of postcolonial change in Mali. His presence as minister of culture, in nation whose arts range from prehistoric storytelling and visual arts to contemporary electric guitar virtuosi, makes Sissoko one of the most visible persons in his nation, a diplomat/celebrity.

Although films such as The Tyrant (!995) and Battu (2002) are unique narratives, Sissoko's projects remain the same: translating the oral traditions of tribe and region into the modernist idiom of the cinema, and finding a place for the insistent reality of urbanized Africa in the texture of Malian culture. For Sissoko, the cinema has always been the most important art, and his latest project speaks to that belief: his cultural center is working on translating African films into various African languages, to circulate the power of his chosen art form throughout the many civilizations called Africa.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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