Monday, May 29, 2017

#598: Yeelen

1987, TSPDT Rank #613

Unlike many other African films, Yeelen is set in pre-colonial times, and as a result it is primarily concerned with painting a picture of the cultures which thrived in what is now Mali around the 13th century (the century from which Mali's most renowned narrative epic, The Epic of Sundiata, dates). The film successfully creates a world which feels both believable and fantastic at the same time, with an aesthetic mastery that prompted critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum to deem it one of the most beautiful African films ever made upon its release. Souleymane Cissé’s career up to this point had consisted primarily of political films, which often had an overtly critical edge, and as a result, many admirers of Cissé’s previous work saw Yeelen as an abandonment of political meaning in favor of pure aesthetics. However, the film can also be seen as Cissé’s attempt to evade the scrutiny of the Malian government, whose suspicions had been aroused by his previous films, by hiding a political message within the "safe" territory of Mali's distant past and traditional epic narratives.

Upon closer examination, Yeelen, which centers on the story of a tyrannical religious leader's attempts to find and kill his ambitious son, can be seen as a meditation on the connections between pre-colonial African traditions and modern abuses of power. The father, Soma, is an esteemed member of the secret Komo society of the Bambara people, which claims to hold a monopoly over all knowledge and power in Bambara society. Soma could be compared with modern dictators like former Malian President Moussa Traoré, who use their status as a way to limit and control others in a despotic form of rule - which has often been viewed as the default form of African politics by Westerners. Soma's son, Nianankoro, on the other hand, can be seen to represent the constructive and liberating potential of African traditions, as he is the only character in the film able to stand up to his father's repressive beliefs and use the secrets of the Komo against them.

In this sense, Yeelen presents African cultural beliefs and traditions as rich, powerful forces which can be used for either good or evil. The film has numerous scenes depicting Komo rituals in full (despite the fact that the meaning of these rituals would be obscure even to most modern-day Malians), and it presents the Bambara and Fulani (or Peul) peoples as vastly different communities with distinct cultures, drawing attention to the arbitrary nature of post-colonial national boundaries. These fact that all of the film's dialogue is in either Bambara or Fula (rather than a colonial language like French) shows that one of Cissé’s aims with this film was to increase international awareness of these cultures and their histories, while also warning Malians and Africans in general of the potential for misuse inherent in traditional belief systems such as those of the Komo. Yeelen is definitely a beautiful film as well, but underneath the hypnotic visuals and apparently obscure storyline await many other layers of meaning for those who wish to unpack them, making each viewing of this film a new experience.