YEELEN – Souleymane Cissé leaves us spellbound with sublime visuals and staunch mysticism

I feel some guilt for simmering desire within for some major studio to announce a remake of Souleymane Cissé’s 1987 fantasy film ‘Yeelen’. After a second viewing, I was certain the backing of even a moderate budget will imbue the needed spectacle worthy of Cissé’s confident vision.

Like most fantasy or sci-fi filmmakers from the ‘80s, Cissé had to rely on practical effects and play on audiences’ senses to pull off the more fantastical elements of this film. Now I’ve never been one to take minimalism for granted but like George Miller’s 2015 reboot/sequel of Mad Max, I suspect Cissé, now 78, wouldn’t mind revisiting this world he crafted with modern tech in service of something that could be truly unique.

This is especially so because ‘Yeleen’ is also photographed with more ambition than we see from the very best of African cinema. I dare say it’s the best shot African film of all time. Photographed in his native Mali by Jean-Noël Ferragut and Jean-Michel Humeau, Cissé is milking the most out of the dynamic settings nature has afforded him; from the parched landscapes with famished clay to the swamps with vibrant streaks of green watched over by stunning dawn blue skies.

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The film opens with a gorgeous sunrise on Bambara land and never looks back, seizing every opportunity punctuate this unconventional and daze-paced film with shots framed beautifully with ingredients only God can provide. The opening sunset is also a marker for the ideas of light, heat and fire that this film is infatuated with. The film’s title, ‘Yeelen’, translates to brightness; positioning us for the sense of illumination that various characters in this rich story seek.

Set in Mali Empire somewhere around the 13th century, ‘Yeleen’ revolves around Soma, a father on the hunt for a son he has never met. Early on there’s the shot of live chicken combusting (a belated sorry to animal rights campaigners) as Soma asks for the fiery backing of the god of the bush and sets the tone for this oedipal narrative. Soma, a powerful sorcerer molded by the sacred Komo cult, is threatened by the idea of his son, Nianankoro, growing to become as powerful as him and sees killing his son as the only logical outcome of their intertwined destiny.

It would appear Nianankoro’s mother never trusted her husband, who’s morals have long rotted away. She fled when she was with child and now, old and weary, she describes Soma as terror, urging her son to flee when they learn his ominous wrath is closer than ever. Nianankoro, after initial objections, decides to take flight but only to his uncle, Soma’s twin, in search for the key to defeating his father. The showdown is inevitable. And one could argue it’s also a subtle commentary on toxic masculinity. Nianankoro and his malevolent father are more alike than we think.

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Niamanto Sanogo as Soma

Like the very best of classic African cinema, Cissé is pivoting off an incredibly rich screenplay. His adaptation of an ancient Malian tale effortlessly weaves together familial strife and an eclectic mysticism into a fabric that features familiar totems of fantasy cinema. Some of the totems are quite literal like Soma’s gem infused magic post, which is locked on to Nianankoro who traverses ancient Mali in search of a quickening.

As left of field as ‘Yeelen’ may be, sections of it also draw from some tenets of westerns and samurai flicks. Aside from the glorious wide landscape shots of arid terrain, it features standoffs scored to the hooves of anxious horses even before the final showdown, which itself has echoes of Sergio Leone affinity for extreme close-ups of squinting eyes and jittery hands.

On Nianankoro’s travels, he is for a time an unwilling guest of a small tribe after he is mistaken for a cattle thief. But his power soon becomes apparent to the leader and elders of this tribe and they call on him for protection from marauding invaders. The tribe’s leader later seeks intervention for more domestic matters that serves as the entry point for his wife Attou, who quietly emerges as one of the film’s more significant characters

‘Yeelen’ is very much a film about contrasts; primarily the idea of light causing more darkness and enlightenment causing more uncertainty. On the flip side, it is Nianankoro’s blind uncle that sees much more than everyone in this story.

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The contrast is also evident in the geography. Consider the presence of the spring gushing for in arid lands with no rivers in sight. I also couldn’t help noticing that on the branches of stems rooted to cracked and gaunt soil were relatively startling amounts of green foliage.

Also well conveyed is the contrast of the nurturing power of mothers and the destructive lust of fathers. The best shot sequence in this film bursting from the seams with visual brilliance sees Nianankoro’s mother with streaks of white from milk running down her dark skin in a marsh as she prays to the goddess of the water for the sustenance of the land and the safety of her son. Juxtapose this with Soma’s drive, which sees him shed blood multiple times demanding the skies are leveled and bushes razed in his pursuit of his son.

Cissé is very much enamored with the fantasy world he fully realises with a sublime visual sense. African films, exploitation or otherwise, have always acknowledged the power of the spiritual and magic or juju, if you may. The difference here is the world of ‘Yeelen’ is given life by its magical elements. The fantastical layers are not mere plot points we visit gratuitously when someone decides to hex an enemy or manufacture infatuation.

And whilst on the surface ‘Yeelen’ comes off as a marked diversion from the politically charged work of African cinema’s forebearers, Cissé takes time late on, in a key scene, to ponder on the tortured history and future of the entity Ousmane Sembène lovingly calls Mother. His attempt at nuance here by trying to infuse some hope is but a limp squeal as trigger words that evoke slavery and neocolonialism sear deepest into our psyche.

It is easy to slide down the lane of praise when revisiting the best African cinema has to offer. Even ‘Ceddo‘, which I consider to be the weakest of Sembene’s works I have seen engages is righteous polemics and toys with ideas that drown out the flaws. Here, I can’t say I was drawn to overly understated way Cissé directs some of his actors who, admittedly, were not professional actors.

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Issiaka Kane as Nianankoro

His leading man, Issiaka Kane as Nianankoro, is almost always photographed lovingly, angled such that his chiseled features look like they were sculptured by the gods. I would have loved it if this was complemented by a bit more charisma to balance the spectrum of performances. Niamanto Sanogo as Soma (and his twin) brings some needed heft, looking like a Malian Lee Van Cliff at times, and the biggest beneficiary of Cisse’s call back to Sergio Leone.

If someone does decide to remake ‘Yeelen’ I sure hope it will be without the Albinos being sacrificed. Given the stigma and harrowing tales about ritual murders and maiming of Albinos, a trip down more politically correct steps would be in order. As for the treatment of chickens, I guess that’s up for debate.

Also up for debate is if ‘Yeelen’ should actually be remade. I’ll put pen my arguments in due time. But this is a world that deserves another life in cinemas. ‘Yeelen’ joins the growing list of films I regret not having seen on the biggest screen possible. Again I say, its stunning visuals and unforgettable use of landscape have yet to be matched on the continent.

When it’s all said and done, ‘Yeelen’s’ spirituality is what sets it apart. For 100 minutes, Cissé asks that we commit to the belief that the fabric of our being is held together by magic. Unions are birthed from magic. Conflict is ended with magic. In Cissé’s eyes, Africa as we know it is built on the cornerstone of the mystical and that’s all the affirmation he needs.

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