Criterion Prediction #128: Yeelen, by Alexander Miller
Title: Yeelen (aka The Light or Brightness)
Director: Souleymane Cisse
Cast: Issiaka Kane, Niamanto Sanogo, Monzon Coumare, Souleymane Coumare
Synopsis: Yeelen follows the travels of Nianankoro, the son of a shaman who is traveling the 13th century Mali Empire with his mother. Because of his magical powers, Niankoro befriends tribe leaders while evading his father who intends to kill him because he sees his son as a threat.
Critique: Usually with African cinema, we get neorealist parables and socio-political allegories from luminaries like Ousmane Sembene, Djibril Diop Mambéty, or Idrissa Ouédraogo whose folksy evocations often paint a more impactful narrative. While Cisse’s filmography (for me) is limited to this title, he’s adept at creating an environment replete with earthy mysticism, tribalism, and magic. The film casually adopts an aesthetic that realizes the challenging notion of sorcery, and its tangential execution reenforces the narrative power.
Yeelen relies on the more traditional storytelling devices, with Oedipal overtones, utilizing classic themes of good/evil, and birth/rebirth as a means of exploring national identity. Cisse rudimentary special effects are simplistically invigorating, trick cutting, superimposed images, are in tandem with the films naturalistic milieu. Yeelen is a film that has it’s own hypnotic rhythm and pace; it moves in a series of low and high shots. The environment is a predominant character, and we see every variation of the landscape – arid drylands, cracked clay soil, reed-filed marshes, while mountainous regions dominate the later portion of the films, in what may be an articulate use of elemental symbolism the area seems to harden with the story’s ascension. Cisse has the atmospheric tendencies consistent with Peter Weir’s early work; there’s this leering intimidation emanating from the natural terrain, it feels like a quiet form of courtesy and admiration.
Yeelen is a richly textured film that is quite frankly unlike anything else; it’s an erotic, bawdy, witchy tale that provides a broad spectrum of interpretation.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Hopefully we’ll see more African films from directors like Ousmene Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambéty, but broadening the filmmaking region is always a good thing, and the mystical tendencies of Souleymane Cisse would be a brilliant contrast to rounding out the scope of African cinema in the collection. Yeelen is available on DVD thanks to Kino. In the past few years Criterion has broken the Kino gate with their releasing of Stalker and The Piano Teacher, so it seems like “Kino Lorber” doesn’t translate to “off limits” anymore.