Fantastical decolonization in Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen

I have been studying African cinema for about three years now, and have mostly focused on representations of neo/postcolonial Africa and Africans. Films like Ousmane Sembène’s, La Noire de…, Alain Gomis’ L’Afrance, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako and S. Pierre Yameogo’s Moi et mon blanc figure quite prevalently in my study of the aesthetics and politics of a decolonial African cinema dedicated towards the restitution of African society and the reconstruction of African civilization in the wake of the veritable identarian holocaust which was European colonization. This has often led African cinema to have a markedly anti-European valence, the likes of which can be attributed to the means by which Western Europe contributes to the active process of delimiting an endless African potentiality. Yet, given that African cinema, like African literature, is destined for wider circulation in markedly Euro-American markets, the politics of African cinema’s intellectual and political discourse are always subject to the encroaching Western gaze. African directors create in ways, as Samuel Lelièvre writes, which not only signify an essential(ized) African identity while at the same time perilously working to reinvent the very ideas of Africa and Africans (Lelièvre 51). From this lens, much of African cinema responding evidently to the issues plaguing burgeoning African nations creates the illusion of the perpetually failed state, the broken people and the hopelessly dark continent, insofar that the political project of African cinema is reinscribed by its very ontology as “other.” The question of perspective, audience and vantage recode and rewrite the African film in ways which directors cannot predict or avoid. From its very conception, African cinema has had to contend with not only the political implications of a decolonial medium oftentimes critical of the contemporary regimes in place –censure was a serious threat to the burgeoning African film industry – but they also continually were met with a kind of insurmountable alterity from the perspective of European filmgoers and cinephiles perhaps unfamiliar with Africa outside of what they had been hitherto told, and what few African films they had seen in international festivals.

It is for this reason that a film like Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen was such a departure for me, and it seems, for many critics of African cinema. From a superficial narrative perspective, Yeelen appears disinterested in the contemporary issues which afflict African nations, primarily because the film seems to exist in a time untouched by colonialism. No one, for example, speaks French or English; there are no railroads to facilitate the penetration of the continent by European nations; there is neither Christianity nor Islam. Yet, the film does not seem preoccupied with telling the origin of a civilization, cannot be properly called an origin story. Politically, Yeelen appears to be an opaque fantasy film set in a world where magic is just as powerful as it is quotidian. Its main character, Nianankoro, embarks on an odyssey to confront his father after he and his mother had been disowned and abandoned. Along the way, he makes allies among the various ethnic groups of the territory in which the events of the film take place, finally meeting his father and engaging him in battle. Soma, Nianankoro’s father, is a powerful sorcerer who uses his magic – which requires the spilling of blood to function – to curse and inhibit his son out of fear of his impending overthrow. In return, Nianankoro’s benevolent magic is used to assist the needy, to pay his way and to provide restitution to his disenfranchised mother.  The calamity at the end of the film, the titular light (yeelen means “light” in Bambara) at the end of their destructive battle, symbolizes the belief of death and rebirth in the same instance, the conflict between father and son in traditional Mande culture, intimated in the film’s opening epigraphs. On first glance, the filmgoer is likely to see Yeelen as a film completely detached from the world in which we live, passing little comment on the affairs of contemporary African society as one is privy to see in a film such as Timbuktu or Mooladé. A surface reading of Yeelen, particularly from a perspective unaware of the film’s myriad cultural references to Mande and Bambara culture, yields only the analysis that Yeelen is a vaguely high fantasy film with an Oedipal conflict at its heart (Merolla 527).

Yeelen‘s story circles around young wizard Nianankoro on his journey to face his father Soma, a powerful warlock.

Suzanne MacRae and Danielle Merolla both intimate that Yeelen is far more interested in the sphere of contemporary African politics than such a surface reading can uncover, primarily due to the film’s focus on the issue of the corrosion which power of any kind naturally creates. Soma is wicked because of his desire to maintain a hegemony he knows by prophecy is destined to be called into question by his son. It is for this reason that he abandons his wife and child, exiling them and thus dooming them to a difficult life outside of the Komo society of sorcerer-blacksmiths. Stranded, Baniéba and her son Nianankoro must wander aimlessly, for Soma’s persistent sorcery and tracking has given them a life of perpetual fugitivity. Yet, Nianankoro’s journey to face his father is not one of vengeance and anger towards him, so much as his quest seeks to reestablish his honor as a Bambara man. Having never been completely initiated into Komo society due to his disinheritance, Nianankoro’s manhood has been interrupted due to his father’s fear. Nianankoro’s desire in the film is not to kill his father, but to restore a power to himself which has been denied by way of his father’s avaricious grasp on power. Merolla argues that Nianankoro’s initiation journey through the lands of the Bambara, Peul and Dogon intimate the film’s representation of national identity embodied by the epic at the heart of the film (Merolla 529). The villain, Soma, represents a power which transcends ethnic and national identity insofar that his power is rooted in institutions beyond the comprehension or manipulation of ordinary laypeople.

The Oedipal struggle in the film also intimates its critique of formative gender. Without a father, Nianankoro’s existence has been fundamentally bound to his mother. MacRae argues that the Peul king, the Dogon priests which attend to the bottomless Bongo Spring and Nianankoro’s paternal uncle Djigui serve as character foils to Soma, whose entire personage is developed from a kind of corrupt, narcissistic villainy. In many ways, Soma is the flattest character in the film, having no personal ambitions other than the maintenance of his supreme, necropolitical power (MacRae 65). We are never told why Soma truly fears his son, although prophecy is intimated as a potential reason. Baniéba is certain than any confrontation with Soma will end in Nianankoro’s death, for “with one stroke / [Soma] can burn [him] to ashes,” although the initiatory journey begins anyways. Along the way, it becomes apparent that Nianankoro’s powers are more vast than he himself knows. He possesses the power to paralyze people, to cause swords drawn against him to catch fire, and to “instantly kill people,” all of which frighten the Peuls who have captured him for attempting to steal milk from their cattle. As he travels, making friends among the national communities which construct mainstream Malian politics, his power increases until he is finally able, with the assistance of his mother, his uncle and his pregnant wife, to face his father in magical combat.

Nianankoro’s wife, Attu, fetching one of two eggs found at the foot of the Wing of Koré, Nianankoro’s magical weapon. It is proper custom, when one finds two eggs, to leave the other behind.

Yeelen’s allegorical dimensions surface only when one moves beyond the surface level of the text, which to the Western viewer may beg an “anthropological reading.” The various feats of worldbuilding in the film can distract the Western viewer primarily because the film seems so engaged in a precolonial and therefore “premodern” African society, the likes of which has been, at least to many Western viewers, effaced by the European and Arab encroachments of Islam and modernity in Africa’s “dark heart.” It is therefore not surprising that, during a brief discussion of this film that I attended, the audience members immediately turned to anthropology – a loaded term in African cultural studies, mostly to be avoided because of the colonial histories behind anthropological discourse on the continent; see Christopher Miller, Theories of Africans. Yet, Yeelen mirrors many of the contemporary issues of African political life, such as the corrosive quality of near-autocratic power, the fragmentation and hostility between ethnic groups, the search-and-destroy tactics enacted on political contenders vying for power, and even the encroaching desertification of Mali’s Sahel regions. Although the film seems invested in painting a picture of an alternative “Africa,” its rootedness in Malian society,  Malian politics, with Malian geographical points of reference and ethnic groups which constitute the Malian public – even if the periodization of the film predates Mali as either a nation or a notion – nevertheless creates the illusion of a contemporary critique veiled by the film’s foundation in fantasy, epic and mythography. In so doing, Cissé effectively “shows the younger generations the unknown aspects of our culture while at the same time […] having fun by making a fantastical story” (Senga and Cissé, 134; translation mine). The film, destined for a wider distribution and for a broader public than could be attained within its own national borders, speaks to the general unity of African people, bound together by “deep roots” which artists must use to “permit [African] populations to better communicate with one another” (Senga and Cissé, 135-6; translation mine). To claim that Yeelen stands out in a political genealogy of Francophone West African cinema is to engage in the dangerous kind of surface reading which ultimately beguiles the uninitiated viewer into believing Yeelen to be a film fundamentally unengaged in contemporary discourse on neocolonialism. This is not true. Yet, a film on the topic of neocolonialism, as Cissé lays bare, need not hit you over the head with its critique, need not necessarily historicize white European dominance and encroachment in West Africa, and the subsequent power vacuum the rapid departure of infrastructure known as Decolonization. Yeelen, according to Cissé, is as an attempt at a different kind of universal film language destined primarily for a unified African public. Not antithetical to the works of Sembène – who Cissé cites as one of his inspirations – or Diop or Sissako, Cissé establishes through Yeelen a new way of speaking directly to an African filmgoing community, weaving in the epics which exist all across Africa to the contemporary issues which inhibit the complete defeat of neocolonialism. While Yeelen moves differently than a film like Ceddo, even if both films are invested in a now-mythicized African past, both films nevertheless contribute to the building of semiotic, filmic languages in African cinema. In the same ways that Africa is not a monolith, so too should the languages of African cinema be multiple.

 

For anyone interested in learning more about Francophone African cinema, attached you’ll find some of foundational texts in the field:

 

Barlet, Olivier. African Cinemas: Decolonizing the Gaze. Zed Books ; Distributed in the USA exclusively by St. Martin’s Press, Inc, 2000.

—. Les Cinémas d’Afrique Des Années 2000: Perspectives Critiques. Harmattan, 2012.

—. Les Cinémas d’Afrique Noire: Le Regard En Question. L’Harmattan, 1996.

Diawara, Manthia. African Cinema: Politics and Culture. Indiana University Press, 1992.

—. African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics. Prestel, 2010.

Diop, Samba. African Francophone Cinema. University Press of the South, 2004.

Frindéthié, Martial K. Francophone African Cinema: History, Culture, Politics and Theory. McFarland, 2009.

Genova, James Eskridge. Cinema and Development in West Africa. Indiana University Press, 2013. orbis.library.yale.edu Library Catalog, http://muse.jhu.edu/books/9780253010117.

Gugler, Josef. African Film: Re-Imagining a Continent. Indiana University Press ; David Philip ; James Currey, 2003.

Pfaff, Françoise. À l’écoute Du Cinéma Sénégalais. Harmattan, 2010.

 

Works Cited

Barlet, Olivier. “African Film’s Meaningful Body.” Black Camera, vol. 2, no. 2, 2011, pp. 138–44. JSTOR, doi:10.2979/blackcamera.2.2.138.

Cissé, Souleymane, and Jean-François Senga. “Interview de Souleymane Cissé Par Jean-François Senga.” Présence Africaine, no. 144, 1987, pp. 133–38. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24351508.

Lelièvre, Samuel. La Lumière de Souleymane Cissé: Cinéma et Culture. L’Harmattan, 2013.

MacRae, Suzanne H. “‘Yeelen’: A Political Fable of the ‘Komo’ Blacksmith/Sorcerers.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 26, no. 3, 1995, pp. 57–66. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3820136.

Merolla, Daniela. “Filming African Creation Myths.” Religion and the Arts, vol. 13, no. 4, Nov. 2009, pp. 521–33. booksandjournals.brillonline.com, doi:10.1163/107992609X12524941450082.

Mesnil, Michel. “LA LUMIÈRE COMME RÉVÉLATEUR: « Yeelen ».” Esprit, no. 135 (2), 1988, pp. 130–33. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24469122.

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