by Allan Fish
(Mali 1987 105m) DVD1
The magic post
p Souleymane Cissé d/w Souleymane Cissé ph Jean-Noël Ferragut, Jean-Michel Humeau ed Dounamba Coulibaly, Andrée Daventure, Marie-Catherine Mique m Michel Portal, Salif Keita art Kossa Mody Keita
Issiaka Kane (Nianankoro), Niamanto Sanogo (Soma/Djigui), Aoua Sangare (Attou), Balla Moussa Keita (Rouma Boll, the Peul King), Sountha Traore (Mah), Ismaila Sarr (Bofing), Youssouf Cissé (small boy), Koke Sangare (chief of the Komo), Youssouf Coulibaly, Manzon Coumare, Souleymane Coumare, Sidi Diallo, Nadje Doumbla, Zan Doumbla,
Souleymane Cissé’s shamanistic drama is certainly not a film for everyone. It’s leisurely, almost funereal in places. Not a lot happens for long stretches of time and the plot itself cannot mean as much to those unversed in Mali customs and heritage as those who are, and yet somehow it grabs hold of you, tightly drawing you into its magical tale until you fall under its spell. Jonathan Rosenbaum called it the greatest African film ever made and, despite the talents of Ousmane Sembene – whose Moolaadé has already been covered – it’s hard to argue with him.
Yeelen is set in 13th century Mali – though to be fair, it could just as easily be 20th century, such is the remote location of the tale. Nianankoro is accused by his father, Soma, the powerful master of the Komo, the ancient magical code of Mali, of stealing secrets from the Komo. Over the years Nianankoro and his old mother, Mah, have moved from village to village in an effort to outrun his father’s vengeance, but finally Mah comes to realise that running is useless and that Nianankoro must be prepared to either try and reconcile himself with his father, or be prepared to face him. Nianankoro leaves his mother to try and get help from his uncle in fighting Soma, and on the way tries to evade detection from Bofing, who is searching for him with his magic post, and Soma himself. He helps the King of the Peul tribe fight off unwanted attentions, and is even given the hand of his daughter in marriage, but ultimately, it proves merely a sojourn from the inevitable, and he finally faces up to his vengeful father.
There’s arguably never been a more mystical film in the history of the cinema, but whereas the finer intricacies of the shamanistic lifestyle cannot be appreciated by western eyes, the beauty of the surroundings, and the director’s skill at exploiting them, can. There are numerous sequences which, by their very alien nature, ingrain themselves in our minds, from a sequence of literal head wrestling to the death to Komo practitioners literally freezing people still to the magic post’s magically moving all over the place as two attendants try to carry it and do its bidding. One feels like a privileged witness to a soon-to-vanish way of life, and while the beliefs of the West Africans may seem from another world, their feelings, worries and sense of honour are not.
The film opens with a gorgeous sunrise, with the sun’s rays bringing the Yeelen or brightness of the title, and ends with a dazzling sequence, a sort of wizard’s duel in which, in true Merlin-like fashion, the protagonists transform themselves into animals, from elephants to lions to bulls, before being forced to submit to the power of the magic they practice in the face of a truly blinding, apocalyptic light. However, what is most remarkable about the sequence is that it is the most western of the entire film. The stand off between father and son may evoke memories of Oedipus, but cinematically it bears the distinct mark of Sergio Leone, complete with respectful distances, flashbacks and even the extreme close ups of the protagonists’ eyes. One only need close our eyes to imagine Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson in their place. Gorgeously shot, Cissé is also blessed by powerful performances from his non-professional cast, not least Kane as the noble Nianankoro, a handsome youth whose eyes speak a thousand words and who walks with the innate dignity of total majesty. A wonderful film.