Yeelen (1987)

“But last night I saw a bright light cross the sky and stop before me. It said, “Djigui, the threat hovering over the Bambaras will strike the country, but spare your family.” That restored my hope. In the same dream, I was also told this: “Your descendants will undergo a great change. They’ll be slaves, and deny their race and faith.” All upheavals are full of hope. The woes I saw in my dream will be turned to the Bambaras’ advantage. I also see that many peoples will covet our country. I think one can die without ceasing to exist. Life and death are like scales, laid one upon another.”

‘Yeelen’, directed by Souleymane Cissé in 1987, is a Malian film set in an undefined past. It follows the adventures of Nianankoro, played by Issiaka Kane as he seeks out his uncle to help him fight his magician father. Nianankoro also possesses magical abilities and uses these as he encounters villagers and nomads on his journey. The film climaxes with an enigmatic, almost apocalyptic fight between father and son in which each is transposed (either symbolically or literally – it isn’t clear) into an elephant and a lion. It’s a film that is rich with (to Western eyes at least) an alien symbolism, but one that draws from elemental imagery such as earth, water and fire. There are clearly recognisable religious acts throughout the film: sacrifices, including a very uncomfortable immolation of a chicken, baptism, burial and rebirth. All of these make the symbolism contradictorily ‘foreign’ and intangible, but also familiar and universal. Cissé’s treatment and presentation of elemental forces is almost on a level with Tarkovsky, but there is nothing complex or convoluted about the plot. Just as the director draws on basic and eternal imagery for the visual content of the film, he draws on simple folk tales for his narrative. Where this film really hits home is in the way the characters move about the landscapes of West Africa, and the feeling of circularity in their actions. At times the identities and roles of father and son seem to blur and become interchangeable. The magic, as it’s presented on screen, adds to this feeling of temporal dislocation as Nianankoro and his father reverse or freeze time.

Would I recommend it? Its strength is that it’s such an unusual film, but at the same time so recognisable. There’s something similar to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s movies in the look of the film and the meandering nature of the quest that Nianankoro undertakes. I’d suggest a double-bill with ‘El Topo’.

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