Yeelen aka The Light

 (Souleymane Cisse, Mali/Burkina Faso/France, 1987) 105 minutes


Director: Souleymane Cisse
Producer: Souleymane Cisse
Screenplay: Souleymane Cisse
Photography: Jean-Noel Ferragut
Editors: Dounamba Coulibaly, Andree Davanture,
Marie-Catherine Miqueau, Jenny Frenck, Seipati N'Xumalo
Music: Michel Portal, Salif Keita
Issiaka Kane (Nianankoro)
Aoua Sangare (Attu)
Niamanto Sanogo (Soma)
Balla Moussa Keita (Peul King)
Soumba Traore (Nianankoro's Mother)
Ismaila Sarr' (Djigui)
Youssouf Tenin Cisse (Attu's Son)
Koke Sangare (Komo Chief)

Reviews and notes

One of the most remarkable features of YEELEN is that, despite its apparently esoteric subject matter, it is readily accessible to viewers who know nothing of Bambara (or even African) lore and traditions. Clearly the film's theme - the conflict between father and son over power and knowledge, and the threat of devastation this entails - the central journey, which is also a chase, and the elemental imagery (light, fire, water and earth) have a universal appeal. This is not, however, the product of any spurious attempt at a universality, but grows out of a profound response to a specific belief system, one which has been carefully explored and researched. In Souleymane Cisse's words: "For every individual, imagination is personal, intuitive. For me imagination is planetary, cosmic. I am Sonink, but I express myself in Bambara"

While Cisse's imagination may be cosmic, his sympathies are clearly intimate and personal: "The story of my actors, how I met them, how I helped them shape their parts, and finally what they have done with the characters I gave them. When we started, they were not professionals. As most of them couldn't read, I had to explain every nuance, every line. With each actor, a new story begins." It is a tribute to Cisse's commitment that YEELEN's strength derives not merely from the force of its images, compelling though these are, but from the involvement of the viewers sympathies and imagination with the destinies of the characters, and in their social and dramatic interactions. Meaning is generated by every detail of speech, gesture and performance, and nowhere is there any suspicion of mismatch between the individual characterisations and the cosmic implications of the film's narrative and imagery.

Attempts have already been made in this respect to invoke the idea of black Oedipus, while acknowledging that African's themselves reject most of the ideas of psychoanalysis, believing them to be incompatible with their own cultures. But if some of the mechanisms of the Oedipus complex are culturally specific, it is still possible that there could be such a thing as an African psychoanaylsis, generated from within African culture rather than imposed on it from without. One's immediate reaction is that Oedipus at Colonus, in which the hero's passing is 'more wonderful than that of any other man', is as appropriate a point of reference for YEELEN as Oedipus the King, and the complex which Freud derived from that drama. The film consistently emphasises sacred ritual , while the 'luminous' deaths of both the hero and his father well merit the label 'wonderful'. Their passing signifies the end of a way of life and the appearance, of Nianankoro and Attu's son the dawn of a new era, one in which knowledge is used to benefit all.

Thus the closing sequence of the film proposes a future in which a connection may be made that Cisse sees as indispensable: that between the current interest of Mali's younger generation in science and technology and their regaining contact with their cultural roots as Africans. "I am very open towards science, but science has need of a base, needs to take account of man in his deepest culture. At no moment do I think that such beliefs can retard the advance of science." The forces released in the conflict of magical power and knowledge between Nianankoro and Soma first take on the shapes of powerful animals: black bull, brown bull, elephant, lion. However, as heat and light shine from the eyes of the pestle and the wing, the roaring on the soundtrack puts one forcibly in mind, not of the animals of the forest but of the sound of a nuclear explosion.
- James Leahy, Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1988

Weblink: Slant Magazine review

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