Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Souleymane Cissé's Yeelen (1987) is showing May 14 - June 13, 2018 in the United States as part of the series Cannes Takeover.
The story is universal: a brave son must defeat his wicked father to save the world. The setting, if not Pan-African, is at the least Pan-Malian: a sprawling journey through Sudan and savanna, stagnant wetlands and sandstone cliff-sides. The time is eternal: an era before colonization, when each people had their land and the land their spirits. In this story, in this place, in this time Souleymane Cissé weaves his film Yeelen, a tale that is all tales in its scope, tragedy, and triumph. When first released in 1987, it heralded a breakthrough for African cinema, winning a Jury Prize at Cannes and becoming one of the first African films ever distributed on video. Though Cissé was trained in the Soviet Union and cut his teeth with documentaries, the film is a defiant rejection of many American and European cinematic modes, electing instead for a broader stylistic esotericism rooted in formalized rituals and ceremonies. Scenes and sequences move less like traditional narrative beats—though the story is linear, uncluttered, and straightforward—instead favoring the meticulous unhurriedness of a priest preparing for vespers or a surgeon for surgery. Scenes of eating and bathing, crafting and praying make up as much of the run-time as the film’s many battles, visions, and scenes of sorcery. In Yeelen we see another reinvention of cinema as an African art form, a continuation of the legacy of Ousmane Sembène and Idrissa Ouédraogo.
And yet the film can be challenging for many Western viewers. Yeelen, also known as Brightness, assumes deep familiarity with the peoples, histories, and cultures of Mali and wastes no time on explanatory exposition; so unconcerned with Western audiences, the film necessitated the addition of several introductory inter-titles giving viewers a crash course in West African cosmology and mythology. Perhaps daunted by this esotericism, many Western critics and scholars have treated the film through the lens of Campbellian monomyth. And though the film meets several of its criteria, to reduce Yeelen to a simple Hero’s Journey strips it of much of its nuance. It is more than a simple story of good versus evil, it tells of the salvation of peoples and cosmos rotted by greed and corruption while promising rebirth and salvation not just for its protagonist, but for the world itself.
At the heart of Yeelen is the concept of nyama, an animistic spiritual force believed by the Bamana people—the dominant ethnic group of Mali—to be inherent in all living things. As described by Suzanne H. MacRae:
“Nyama animates all living beings, including plants and animals, and controls the powers of nature itself, governing crop production and rain-fall. This psychic force impels all human thinking, will, and action, and in turn is released by all actions. It generates the underlying pattern or coherence of the entire world. Because it executes the operations of cause and effect, it could be termed African karma.”
Among the Bamana are the Komo, an ancient society of blacksmith/sorcerers both feared and respected for their power and control over nyama. In Bamana cosmology, the Komo gain their authority from their mastery of fire as a tool for transforming things and materials from one state to another, skills that are passed directly from father to son through rigorous training and esoteric lessons in arcane knowledge. To turn a chunk of metal into a plowshare or a lump of clay into pottery isn’t just craftsmanship, it’s an act of actual transformative magic empowered by nyama. Likewise, crafted objects like pylons and fetishes aren’t just things—they’re conduits for the force of nature itself.
As toolmakers and diviners essential to the survival of the Bamana, the Komo are supposed to be beneficent and magnanimous, but Yeelen examines a time when they were corrupted by the lust for power. The film opens with Soma (Niamanto Sanogo), a powerful sorcerer and member of the Komo, sacrificing a chicken to Mari, the god of the brush, to help him find his adult son Nianankoro (Issiaka Kane) who is prophesied to kill him. Led by a magical beam that works like a giant divining rod, he hunts the son he abandoned as a child so that he may slay him. Meanwhile, Nianankoro—spurred by a magical vision he sees in a jar of water he activates with spit, a substance believed to have great power by the Komo for its infusion of water with life force—sets off on a journey to find his father’s twin brother Djigui (Sanogo in a dual role) for help.
Aided with a fetish from his mother, he travels into the liminal space separating the peoples in the Malian savannah, a mysterious place inhabited by beasts, monsters, and magical creatures like a man-hyena in a tree who prophesies about Nianankoro’s future. His adventure takes him into the land of the Fulani, a horseback riding nation of herders who mistake him for a cattle thief and capture him. Their king Rouma Boli (Balla Moussa Keïta) orders him killed, but Nianankoro enchants his executioners so their bodies freeze and their weapons combust. Seeing a potential powerful ally, Rouma Boli offers him his freedom in exchange for aid against a warring party that has killed many of his men. By hammering a specially prepared horse bone into a termite mound—an object considered magically charged by many West Africans as an inversion of earth; a space literally turned upside-down by insects—he summons a swarm of bees and a swell of bushfire that destroys the raiders. Hailed as a hero, Nianankoro is adopted by Rouma Boli who gives him the new task of curing his wife Attou’s (Aoua Sangare) infertility. Nianankoro’s healing magics prove too powerful and the two have sex. Nianankoro and Attou dutifully present themselves to Rouma Boli for execution for their adultery, but in an act of mercy he gives Attou to Nianankoro as a wife and sends them off to the land of the Dogon people, the third and final Malian ethnic group prominently featured in the film.
Among the Dogon, Nianankoro discovers his uncle Djigui. Blinded by Soma for trying to use their powers to help people outside of the Komo, Djigui stole the Kore Wing—a carved board symbolizing the holy vulture which itself symbolizes the Komo—and took it to the Dogon plateaus to wait for Nianankoro to reach manhood. After Nianankoro and the now pregnant Attou cleanse themselves of their adultery by bathing in a local spring gushing forth from a cliffside without an apparent source, Djigui combines his mother’s fetish with the Kore Wing, revitalizing it as a tool powerful enough to counter Soma’s magic. Nianankoro finally confronts Soma and the two battle their magic against each other, resulting in an apocalyptic blast of light (or brightness, the literal translation of the word “yeelen”) that levels the verdant prairie into a sandy desert and turns father and son into ostrich eggs.
Here is where the monomyth model fails to properly represent the highly metaphorical underpinnings of Yeelen. The film ends with Nianankoro’s son entering the desert and recovering his father’s egg and the Kore Wing before leaving for a new land. As the son of a Bamana father and a Fulani mother raised among the Dogon, Nianankoro’s son represents a synthesis of three of Mali’s largest ethnic groups. His retrieval of his father’s egg and the Kore Wing bestows him with the power of the disgraced Komo to restore and recreate the fractured Mali as a peaceful, just land. But Cissé’s story requires the destruction of its hero sans apotheosis or revival. He shares no gained knowledge with his people, exercises no mastery over the worlds he transitions between. And crucially, he doesn’t restore the Komo. What magic is left in the world is transferred to the next generation. What they do with it is up to them.
Though the film is deliberately situated in an unspecified and ancient era (despite a few inconsistencies like one of the Dogon smoking a corncob pipe and Soma’s magical beam featuring faceted stones, a crafting technique not adopted until after contact with Europeans), parallels with modern-day Mali are inescapable. Though once the largest empire in West Africa, Mali was exploited and colonialized by the French in the late nineteenth century until it regained independence in June 1960. What followed was decades of political chaos and economic decline exacerbated by military coups, famine, and corruption culminating in the presidency of Moussa Traoré, a despot who killed protestors and political opposition. With Yeelen Cissé created a new creation myth for Mali, envisioning a nation united not divided by its ethnic and cultural diversity; it hopes for a country capable of ridding itself of its own evils through its own efforts. Only then will the yeelen truly return.
This article was written with the considerable aid of Dr. Elisabeth Cameron, Professor of African Art History at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Among her suggestions was the use of the term “Bamana” when referring to the Bambara people, as “Bamana” is the term they use to describe themselves and “Bambara” is a derogatory term literally meaning “unbeliever/infidel” which was invented and applied by outsiders as punishment for their refusal to convert to Islam in the mid 1800s.