Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Kino Video DVD
resources: Leo Goldsmith’s Favorite Films
“Heat makes fire, and the two worlds (earth and sky) exist through light.”
So reads the epigraph to the 1987 Malian film Yeelen. Like many stories of creation, Yeelen begins with light: the sun rises over a barren West African landscape. This image is immediately paired with another — that of a live chicken immolated in a sacrificial ceremony. In its opening frames the film establishes the contrary nature of light, heat and fire, in their capacity for both destruction and renewal.
Yeelen is a story of cosmogony, an account of the origins of the universe. The film dramatizes this as a process of regeneration, both in the genealogical sense and in the sense of a rising from the ruins. It tells the story of a father’s quest to find and kill his son, and the son’s own journey to gain the powers necessary to fight back. Soma, the father, is fearful of the great supernatural power that his son, Nianankoro, has inherited from him, and summons the destructive forces of the gods to help him find Nianankoro and destroy him.
Theirs is a conflict, not only of generations, but also of ideology. Soma represents an effete, oppressive tradition, and his wrathful jealousy of his son’s power is emblematic of “one of those who use their power only for evil and injustice.” Their final confrontation is apocalyptic in its scope: in order to depose his father’s power, Nianankoro must bring about the destruction and renewal of the entire world order.
Yeelen portrays this clash of old and new in its form as well as its narrative. The film’s soundtrack, composed by famed Malian vocalist Salif Keita and French jazz pioneer Michel Portal, alternates between the sounds of synthesizers and those of more traditional instruments. The two styles are only combined at the very end of the film, in a syncretic manner characteristic of Keita’s music. Similarly, as a cinematic adaptation of an ancient oral legend, the film itself is an example of new replacing old. In Yeelen, the light of cinema reinterprets and revives the oral storytelling tradition.
It has been suggested that the film’s drama of intergenerational conflict and of the world’s creation is universal in its import. The tale bears certain similarities with the myth of Oedipus and other stories from the Western canon, but such a claim for universality belies the distinctiveness of Yeelen’s cultural context. The film’s ambiguously prehistoric setting is evoked with a special attention to the rituals and traditions of Bambara culture. (Though the precise setting of the film is unspecified, the DVD’s packaging claims that the film takes place during the 13th century, in the time of one of the largest Malian empires. The film itself suggests an earlier, pre-Muslim age, however.) Ceremonies and sacrifices are presented in detail, and, even without contextualization, these scenes evoke a complex animist symbolism. The film further reinforces this in its emphasis upon the features of the natural world. Trees, rocks, bodies of water, and animals all have their place in the narrative along with the human figures at its center.
Far from being universal, the film can be quite oblique in its cultural specificity, and this fact has caused some confusion among Western critics. Since its appearance at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival (where it won the Jury Prize), many critics have praised Yeelen for its lush imagery, expert cinematography, and its vivid portrait of Bambara culture, but question the strength of the film’s narrative structure. The film’s story is non-linear: scenes are not clearly sequential; their significance is left unexplained or unresolved. Some critics call the film’s method of storytelling “faulty” or “uneven”; others go so far as to call it “primitive” or “crude.” As one is not likely to hear the structure of a film by Wong Kar-Wai, for example, described as “primitive,” this classification suggests that Yeelen, as an African film, in spite of its ability to capture natural beauty, nonetheless lacks the formal sophistication of films from other countries.
Technically, however, the film is by no means crude or primitive. It boasts a complex sound design and stunning cinematography by Jean-Noel Ferragut and Jean-Michel Humeau. And the film’s director, Souleymane Cissé, was hardly a novice, having studied filmmaking in the Soviet Union and made several films in Mali since the 1960s. In any case, there is much to suggest that the film was not the work of amateurs and that its structure did not arise out of an imperfect understanding of the medium. Rather it is as likely that Cissé is adapting the narrative structures of the oral traditions of Mali, or that he is embracing the formal complexity of contemporary European films, or even combining these styles into a new narrative language all his own. Like the folklore of nearly any culture (even one less remote than that of Mali), the story of Yeelen draws from a complex tradition, which, though full of resonances and implications of meaning, is not wholly reducible or assimilable into Western interpretive language. That the film is nonetheless accessible, even engaging, is an indication of the filmmakers’ ability to realize their culture and its stories on film.