Yeelen

One of the great joys of world cinema is its ability to transport us to places, times, and cultures that are completely different from our own. Anyone who has had their life enriched by the glimpses into Japanese, middle-class domesticity via Ozu, or Indian humanism via Satyajit Ray, or even American history via Ford should recognize that miraculous ability. However, it’s as frequently the universal familiarity of such films as much as their foreignness that draws us in, and allows us to recognize that some themes are ubiquitous no matter the time or place. In the spirit of appreciating that worldliness that cinema brings, a film such as Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen should be appreciated, even if it doesn’t reach the cinematic heights of Ozu, Ray, or Ford.

Yeelen is set in Mali, which is a landlocked country in Western Africa. Its capital, Bamako, was the setting of Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2006 film of the same name. Yeelen is based on a legend told by the Bambara people, and the Bambaran (and Fulan) languages are spoken in the film. It’s about a man named Niankoro (Issiaka Kane) who leaves home with a bunch of “fetishes”, or the family charms and secrets that are said to be magical. His father is Soma (Niamanto Sanogo) who is furious when he discovers the “theft”, and takes to hunting him down via a magic wooden post (and two henchmen) while invoking the local gods. Niankoro eventually stumbles upon the village of Peul where he agrees to help their king, Rouma (Balla Moussa Keita) to defeat their enemies. But Niankoro may be in danger when he finds himself attracted to Rouma’s youngest wife, Attou (Aoua Sangare).

While the film can best be described as an almost classical magic folktale, what’s striking is the largely realistic tone that it’s set in. Director Souleymane Cissé doesn’t take to separating the magical elements from the realism of the setting and the characters. Instead, it’s viewed all as a continuum. When Niankoro first comes to Peul and is arrested for attempting to steal cattle, he informs the people that he could destroy them all if he wished. When Rouma sends to warriors to them, a few flashes of fire is the only indication that Cissé provides that informs us that anything unusual has happened, but it’s enough to freeze the soldiers in place. While such “magic” may seem banal by Hollywood standards, what sets the film apart is precisely the fact that it treats magic not as something discrete from reality and nature, but something that’s an integral part of it.

In keeping with the realistic tone, Cissé equally doesn’t pace Yeelen as a supernatural action thriller, but as a graceful, meditative, spiritual odyssey. Some of the film’s most extraordinary scenes are the most ordinary—the scenes where the only magic exists in the nature and the people, who are part of it, in front of Cissé’s lens. Two such scenes involve ritualistic bathing; the first has Niankoro’s mother (Soumba Traore) bathing with milk, praying for the protection of her son and family. The other bathing scene occurs late in the film when Niankoro and Attou have been wedded, and Niankoro comes upon the spiritual spring waterfall that is supposed to purify anyone who bathes in it. Both Niankoro and Attou take their turns, and, as in the previous scene, Cissé’s lingers on the simplicity and beauty in the simple act of bathing.

But if Yeelen is invaluable—in spite of one’s ultimate enjoyment of it—it’s because of its rare depiction of Mali and its aboriginal tribes, rituals, and the land itself which is almost an equally important character in the film. Yeelen likely contains more scenes of ritual than of actual narrative, one of the most extraordinary being when Niankoro finally finds his uncle, Djigui (also played by Niamanto Sanogo in a dual role), and they all gather in a circle to pay tribute to the gods in a ritual of singing, dancing, noise-making, and rhythmic accompaniment. While such scenes dominate the film, Cissé does set the climax as Niankoro VS Soma, which takes on a similar tone that any veteran of the magical battles in Dragon Ball will recognize. But, even here, Cissé is relatively discreet, using the literal meaning of the film’s title (“brightness”) to provide an utterly ambiguous and provocative conclusion.

In fact, the film lingers after the encounter and finds Attou, along with her and Niankoro’s son, trudging through the desert grounds where Niankoro and Soma met. The son picks up one of two round balls, while Attou retrieves Niankoro staff that he had set in the ground. One is certainly left to ponder the meaning of the gestures, as the ending takes on the quality of Jodorowsky symbolism, though much more subtle, discreet, and tasteful. But I found it hard to shake the feeling as I finished the film that the actual narrative and characters felt too light—like rough outline sketches—to support the film that made its greatest impressions by its impressionistic depictions of a place and people that were so foreign. It’s not so much that the ending fails to be provocative as it is that the story itself fails to make one really care about it after the credits role.

Yeelen is hardly a failure, but it’s one of those films that is frustrating because I can’t help but feel it could have been so much more. You have the classic ingredients of humanism set against society at its most simplistic, infused with a sense of realistic magic, supernaturalism, and spirituality. But the result feels almost anti-epic; Yeelen isn’t a film that lives up to the mythological weight and substance of Homer or Virgil or even Ovid. Perhaps a scene that sums up that “could’ve been” is an early one in which Niankoro hears a mysterious laughter, and eventually sees a man-beast in the trees with the body of a leopard and head of an ape. Here, as elsewhere, Cissé’s renders it with an unusual realism that makes it even more mysterious, but what is missing is a sense of drama or that the event is crucial to the characters or the story.

Perhaps “disconnected” sums up Yeelen’s most egregious fault. I’m not sure if the flaw lies in the screenplay or the editing, or somewhat in both. But if these flaws are apparent they aren’t fatal, and Yeelen is still an evocative film of an utterly foreign place and culture that, like the best depictions of foreign places and culture, also feels peculiarly familiar, and the ultimate beauty and haunting tone of the film certainly outweighs its faults.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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