Mali / 1987 / Bambara & Fula

Directed by Souleymane Cissé

With Issiaka Kane, Aoua Sangare, Balla Mousa Keïta

Still from 'Yeelen'In a hut in a West African village a young man, Niankoro, gazes into a bowl of water. He sees visions of his own father, a sorcerer of repute, who is stalking across the countryside, bent on killing him. Niankoro’s aging mother admonishes him to leave the village before he is destroyed. He sets off on a journey, his mother’s wisdom and gifts instilling him with the courage to use his burgeoning magical powers to become great. And so begins Yeelen, set in an unnamed dreamtime, one in which religious ideas and charms have a powerful hold on reality, while trees, statues, and termite mounds course with magical resilience harnessed only by a powerful few.

By foot, Niankoro makes his way through the bush, encountering propitious signs along the way. A politely laughing hyena god tells him that his life will be radiant. After being arrested by Fulani tribespeople who mistake him for a cattle thief, he impresses them with his magical powers and frees himself from captivity, thereby gaining their admiration. When he helps them fend off an invading army, he is asked to stay and help cure the chief’s youngest wife of her inability to bear children.

Soma, Niankoro’s father, communes with nature and draws his strength from it in a perverse way, while embodying its destructive capability. He roams the land like a force of nature with two entranced slaves who carry his magical divining log for him. His is a contrary sort of magic; under his power, people and animals move backwards, against consciousness, or spontaneously erupt into flames. Niankoro’s magic, on the other hand, represents the civilizing force of this energy. It is firm, at times frightening, but ultimately a pacifying force. He uses it when compelled to do so, and so the people he encounters come tame to his hands. At a remove from nature, he commands his inborn power to protect himself and the Fulani.

Still from 'Yeelen'Apparently Soma has an established cult of elders with whom he consults, and while Niankoro’s uncle (also a malevolent magician) aids him on the hunt, it is decided that the young man must be done away with. But why, is not immediately clear. It may be that the father fears destruction himself at the hands of his son, whose powers will one day outshine his own.

Yeelen exerts the enduring spell of a great myth, but at the same time it has an allegorical dimension that runs beneath its mesmerizing beauty. While its cataclysmic arc could easily result in an image of total destruction, it more readily presents itself as a genesis of sorts, and one that belongs to the future. For while Soma represents a decrepit Africa, one in which merciless enslavement, scorched land, and hunger for power govern the people’s lives, Niankoro represents hope, the setting for a great and terrible rebirth. He is the light antithesis to Soma’s darkness, the natural splendor to Soma’s patriarchal and technocratic rule. Of course the young man is not without human flaws, but he is noble and he seems to have no wish to rule other people with his abilities.

We are ruled by people whom I call the “disabled children of the French imperialism”… they are only agents on the periphery of the occidental neocolonialism.

Ousmane Sembène

Cissé holds up Niankoro, a mythic figure, as a self-abnegating paragon for the new generation in modern Africa – they can heal the destruction that the colonists and their successors have inflicted, but only at a great sacrifice to themselves. The young man does not necessarily expect to emerge alive from the other side of his journey but it is, from the outset, quite apparent that he is able to become radiance, to signify it in the world.
Still from 'Yeelen'

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