The New York African Film Festival (May 10-16), celebrating its 30th anniversary, is honoring the work of Malian great Souleymane Cissé with retrospective screenings of his films, including his masterwork “Yeelen” (1987).
Malian auteur Souleymane Cissé, often hailed as “Africa’s greatest living filmmaker,” masterfully weaves narratives rooted in Mali’s history, culture, and cosmology. His films, while exploring universal themes of power, resistance, identity, and spirituality, are also deeply rooted in his personal experiences and the oral traditions of the Bambara people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Mali.
Exemplary of this is Cissé’s most celebrated film, “Yeelen” (1987), a culturally specific resonant work with universal themes. It challenges traditional Western perceptions of African cinema, and, along with his entire body of work, firmly situates Cissé within the broader narrative of post-colonial African filmmaking.
“Yeelen” is a gripping narrative set in 13th-century Mali. The protagonist, Nianankoro, is a young sorcerer evading his power-hungry father, Soma. As Nianankoro journeys across ancient Mali seeking allies to confront his father, the film beautifully explores themes of magic, tradition, spirituality, identity, and resistance. It boasts a stunning visual style that has attracted comparisons to the science fiction and fantasy genres.
Drawing on the Bambara people’s oral traditions, specifically the 13th-century legend about Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Malian empire, the film immerses viewers in pre-colonial Mali’s cultural richness and spiritual connection to nature. Its universal appeal lies in its timeless themes like rebellion against tyranny, societal evolution, and challenging stereotypes, particularly those held by Western cinema about Africa.
This artistic accomplishment is evident in the film’s plotlines that intertwine ancient legends and contemporary dilemmas. For instance, Nianankoro’s acquisition of the sacred Wing of Kore demonstrates his spiritual and political journey for knowledge and power. His battle with his father symbolizes the fight against oppression by a new generation of Africans. The film’s climax, where both protagonists perish only to be reincarnated, signifies a cycle of regeneration for the continent. These narratives show how “Yeelen” uses magic as a metaphor for Africa’s agency and challenges external perceptions while inspiring internal reflection.
While it’s been heralded as “the best African film ever made” (Film Comment) and “a masterwork of metaphysical realism” (The New Yorker), trying to validate “Yeelen” through comparisons to Western literature and cultures, like Oedipus and “Star Wars,” can hinder an appreciation of the film on its own terms.
Instead, “Yeelen” serves as Cissé’s testament to an Africa not shaped by colonialism but defined by its own rich heritage and potential. It paints a vibrant picture of pre-colonial Mali teeming with diversity, complexity, and vitality, and of a culture with its own values, knowledge, and beliefs.
More than a work of art, “Yeelen” is a powerful act of activism. It employs magic as a metaphor for the power and responsibility of Africans to shape their own destiny. It challenges the oft-exotic or primitive portrayal of Africa by white technicians and academics, inspiring Africans to view their continent not as an object or a victim, but as a subject or an agent.
Cissé’s cinema fits neatly into the first generation of African filmmakers who emerged post-colonial independence in the 1960s and 1970s. These filmmakers, including Ousmane Sembene (Senegal), Djibril Diop Mambety (Senegal), Med Hondo (Mauritania), Ola Balogun (Nigeria), Haile Gerima (Ethiopia), and Sarah Maldoror (Angola/Guadeloupe), sought to create an African cinema that authentically represented their realities, challenged Western stereotypes, addressed social and political issues, and preserved and promoted their culture. Despite grappling with funding, production, distribution, exhibition, and censorship, they crafted their unique styles and visions.
Cissé’s cinema resonates beyond his generation. His influence extends to African cinema luminaries of today like Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania), Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Chad), and, relative “newcomers” like Mati Diop (Senegal). Diop’s film “Atlantics” (2019), for instance, references “Yeelen” in a scene and shares similar themes like the conflict between tradition and change, identity quest, magic and spirituality, and the power of light and fire.
The latter is especially noteworthy because Cissé and Diop represent two pivotal generations of African cinema; Cissé, as an influential pioneer who navigated post-colonial narratives, has significantly impacted Diop, who belongs to the contemporary wave of African filmmakers. Diop’s work, while distinct and innovative, pays homage to Cissé’s legacy and carries forward his ethos of authentic African storytelling.
Cissé’s cinema is deeply rooted in Malian traditions and yet reaches out to the world. It reflects and imagines Africa’s past, present, and future, engages with its diversity, connects with its diaspora, and contributes to its culture and development. His films are not just artistic expressions, but powerful statements that challenge perceptions and transcend borders and time. Therefore, his work, particularly the masterpiece “Yeelen,” deserves not just to be seen, but to be truly experienced, engaged with, and deeply understood.
The New York African Film Festival (May 10-16), celebrating its 30th anniversary, is honoring the work of Malian great Souleymane Cissé with retrospective screenings of his films, including his masterwork “Yeelen” (1987). For more information, including the festival’s full lineup of films, click here.
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