A young man, Nianankoro, embarks on a journey across ancient Mali to fulfil his destiny and challenge his tyrannical father Soma, a member of the Komo society which holds the secrets of a divine cosmic force. Nianankoro’s power matures with the help of the Peul and Dogon peoples, and after acquiring the sacred Wing of Kore, he engages in an epic battle with his father for the fate of the entire country.
Yeelen stands as one of the most acclaimed African films of the twentieth century, largely due to its striking portrayal of the peoples and pre-colonial culture of Mali.1 This status inevitably raises questions about how to judge the film in relation to the pervasive representation of Africa as ‘a paradigm of difference’, the ultimate ‘Other’ of Western modernity.2 Does the film’s vibrant portrayal of precolonial myth and culture make it an African film par excellence, or does the universal appeal of its political allegory and its sheer beauty allow it to transcend its ‘African-ness’? Can the complexity of the film’s politics and reception be understood outside of its distinction as African cinema?
One approach to answering these questions involves considering the nuances of the film’s allegory in relation to viewers’ access to the distinct cultural knowledge of the Bambara. The narrative is rather straightforward: a young man (Nianankoro Diarra) embarks on a journey to fulfil his destiny and challenge his tyrannical father Soma, a member of a society which holds the secrets of a magical cosmic power (Komo). However, the prologue explains that the Komo is not a fictional construct but an actual source of ‘divine knowledge’ in Malian cosmology, obliging spectators to regard the film through this lens.
Although set in an unspecified time period, it is widely believed that the film is based on the legend of Sundiata Keita, the thirteenth-century founder of the Malian empire who used magic to defeat an oppressive ruler. With this framing, we might interpret the film’s political allegory as mere indictment of tyranny. Soma’s despotic rule over the knowledge of the Komo is juxtaposed with the generous leadership of the Peul (Fulani) king, who spares Nianankoro’s life; the Dogon priest, who shares the secrets of rain divination; and Soma’s twin Djigui, whose desire to share the secrets of the Komo resulted in his exile and blindness.
The film is also regarded as an indictment of the violent authoritarian rule of President Moussa Traoré, still at the helm of the nation at the time of its release. Yeelen can be read as an appropriation of the history and myth of Mali as inspiration for postcolonial resistance. It can be grouped with other ‘return to the source’ African films of the 1980s that avoided censorship by advocating a return to indigenous, pre-colonial knowledge to solve contemporary problems.3 Nianankoro’s journey across the country symbolically unites the Bambara, Fulani and Dogon peoples and suggests that the indigenous knowledge of all segments of Malian society is needed to combat a common oppressor.
However, film scholar Suzanne MacRae has successfully argued that the more appropriate precolonial setting of the film is the late nineteenth century, on the cusp of the decline of the Diarra dynasty over the Segou kingdom and the colonisation of the country by the French (1995: 57). This reading is confirmed by the protagonist’s surname, the explicit rebuke of the Diarras by the voice of the Kore in the apocalyptic standoff between father and son, and the implicit reference to colonisation in Djigui’s prophecy.
Thus, while the Sundiata legend provides an important mythical context, Yeelen also resonates with the endless political upheaval that characterised the Segou kingdom. The film’s title, translated as ‘brightness’ or ‘the light’, references this philosophy, presented through Bambara symbology in the opening moments: ‘Heat (Goniya) makes fire (Ta) and the two worlds–earth and sky– exist through light (Dye fia)’. Blinding light plays an important role in the film, particularly in the climactic confrontation between Nianankoro and Soma. Cissé considers this endless cycle of the consolidation, destruction and recreation of knowledge by each generation Yeelen’s most ‘universal aspect’ (Diawara 1998: 15) While the film certainly indicts Soma for his refusal to share power, the sense of destiny guiding Nianankoro’s actions suggests a more spiritual than political claim about the principle of infinite renewal.
The layered meanings of the film make it difficult to tie the film to a single mode of discourse. If understood as a political statement against tyrannical rule built upon the Sundiata myth, then Yeelen (1987) 617 Yeelen can be considered a Bildungsroman, a rite-of-passage narrative about an ordinary man who matures as a wielder of magic, even though it lacks the psychological overtones we might expect from the genre. The spiritual interpretation suggests we read the film as an epic with archetypal characters.
It is the distinctive cultural knowledge of Mali that allows both readings to coexist, and our attempts to appropriate that knowledge, or our inability to do so, mirrors the struggle over access to the secrets of the Komo in the film. Our access to Yeelen’s depth of meaning is tied to our comprehension of its dense cultural source material. For example, MacRae’s research suggests that the name Soma references a type of competitive sorcerer intent on vanquishing rivals, a fact with which Malian audiences might be familiar and which would support an understanding of the film as a retelling of a common myth or of the characters as familiar types (1995: 61).
On the one hand, Yeelen discloses the inner workings of a culture and universalises them. On the other, it presents a distinctive narrative whose deeper allegorical meanings may remain inaccessible to viewers outside of that culture, further exoticising African cultures. In this sense, Yeelen can be regarded as an anthropological film, immersing audiences in a world view that can only be fully comprehended through extensive study. The mere complexity of the rituals of sorcery, which include spitting, powerful wooden boards and amulets, various symbolic human and animal figures, and distinctive patterns of speech and mimicry, to name a few elements, invites audiences to linger over the foreignness and inherent beauty of Bambara culture. The film’s deliberate pacing, achieved through long takes, minimal editing and shots that highlight mise en scène and natural elements over faces and character reactions, also accomplishes Cissé’s goal to keep viewers ‘busy looking, interpreting [and] discovering’ the intricacies of Bambara culture (Diawara 1998: 15). Cissé can also be considered a cinematic griot, serving as a repository and source of transmission for oral knowledge.
The most explicit disclosure in the film, however, is lost on audiences unfamiliar with Malian popular culture, as issues of language and translation prevent them from perceiving the film’s spiritual and affective dimensions. The characters of Yeelen speak in the Bambara and Fula languages, and audiences outside of these linguistic groups must mediate the film through woefully inadequate subtitles, particularly given the minimalist speech of many scenes. By presenting the intricacies of its ceremonies, Cissé not only introduced Malians to clandestine rites they had heard about but never seen, but he also ‘decode[d] the secret ritual described by the song [Malians] usually hear on the radio’; these spectators are encouraged to ‘look for the codic meaning of the song, which [contains] the secrets of the universe’ (Diawara 1998: 15). For the unfamiliar spectator mediating the film through subtitles, the significance of this moment and this depth of meaning are lost.
Frank Ukadike’s affirmation that Cissé succeeds in ‘holding the middle ground between the Western ethnographic conception of the moving image, which seeks out the misery of the Third World, and the falsehood of repressing it on the grounds of cultural intrusion’ begs the question: For whom is this true (Ukadike, 1994: 255)? Which audiences are able to fully access the knowledge that Cissé, like the Dogon priest, appears to freely share? How does the perception of Africa as other enter into this perception of the film? Is the film, ultimately, an allegory about the challenges of viewing African cinema?
Cissé acknowledges that one of his aims in making the film was to ‘erase from people’s mind the disdain they have for Black people and their culture’, and we might argue that the film succeeds in opposing depictions of pre-colonial Africa as ‘primitive’ by humanising its characters and valorising their world view (Diawara 1998: 15). However, framing the film in this manner raises criticism of its appeal to authenticity that reaffirms binary oppositions between Africa and ‘the West’ or the primitive and the modern, while also obscuring its exposition of the underlying power structure and contemporary concerns in Malian society.
The politics of the film’s aesthetic reception echoes these tensions. Although Cissé displays directorial skill that counters any notions of African cinema as aesthetically unsophisticated, we cannot assume that viewers do not see its stunning visuals as further exoticising African cultures. Long, artful shots of the natural elements and lengthy takes of purification 618 Yeelen (1987) rites are experienced as innovative, due to the content of the image as much as the cinematography.
Ultimately, the film reveals a thematic repetition of imagery that allows the visuals to operate symbolically. When Attou takes her turn bathing in the purifying springs of the Dogon territory, we may recall the visual effect of a prior scene of ritual purification, as Nianankoro’s mother prays for her son’s protection. The recognition of this pattern might lead viewers to ask critical questions about the idealistic framing of motherhood in these scenes, moving beyond, or least engaging in a less explicit way, the film’s distinction as an example of African culture. We cannot assume, however, that this is naturally the case. As noted earlier, Cissé walks a fine line between cultural specificity and universal appeal that could be defined as the film’s ‘political unconscious’. 4
Certainly, every film reflects a distinctive cultural orientation that many spectators fail to access, but the interpretive struggle between filmmaker and spectator of African cinema resonates at the level of allegory in films like Yeelen, whose subtle politics and experimental indigeneity cannot be grasped without also grappling with the politics of mainstream discourse about Africa. Yeelen’s greatest success may be that it challenges viewers to explore their own preconceptions of African cinema. In this sense, Cissé serves as an analogue to Nianankoro, attempting to expose stagnant and oppressive knowledge of Africa to the light in a fresh set of eyes.
1. Yeelen won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987, making Cissé the first African to place at the prestigious festival and giving the film an enduring international acclaim.
2. V.Y. Mudimbe, The Idea of Africa, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1994, p. xii.
3. Diawara 1998: 13. Cissé considers Yeelen his most political film, but admits political pressure forced him to tone down the criticism of the government in his films. For a further definition of the ‘return to the source’ genre, see Diawara 1992: 160–5.
4. The term, as used by Frederic Jameson, suggests that all texts have a political dimension that incorporates a philosophy of history beyond the literal political interpretation of their narratives.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Mali, Burkina Faso, France, Germany. Production Company: Les Films Cissé, Atriascop, Les Films du Carrosse, CNC, WDR. Director, Producer and Screenwriter: Souleymane Cissé. Cinematographers: Jean-Noël Ferragut and Jean-Michel Humeau. Music: Salif Keita and Michael Portal. Editor: Dounamba Coulibaly. Cast: Issiaka Kane (Nianankoro Diarra), Niamanto Sanogo (Soma Diarra/Djigui Diarra), Balla Moussa Keita (Rouma Boll), Aoua Sangare (Attou), Soumba Traore (Mah).]
Manthia Diawara, African Cinema: Politics and Culture, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1992.
John Downing, ‘Post-Tricolor African Cinema: Toward a Richer Vision’, in Dina Sherzer (ed.), Cinema, Colonialism, Postcolonialism: Perspectives from the French and Francophone Worlds, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 188–228.
Manthia Diawara, ‘Souleymane Cisse’s Light on Africa’, Black Film Review, Fall 1998.
Suzanne H. MacRae, ‘Yeelen: A Political Fable of the Komo Blacksmith Sorcerers’, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 26, No. 3, Fall 1995, pp. 57–66.
N. Frank Ukadike, Black African Cinema, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1994.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.