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African film Yeelen males strong culteral statement

Tearsheets: Running Arts, Inc., P.O. Box 391, Cambridge, MA 02139

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Written and directed by Souleymane Ciss'e.

Starring Issiaka Kane, Aoua Sangar'e,

Niamanto Sanogo, Balla Moussa Ke"ita,

and Soumba Traore.

Through Thursday at the Brattle Theater.


[GFI]T IS ALWAYS EXCITING WHEN AN unknown filmmaker creates a film that raises the director to international prominence. It is even more exciting when a filmmaker unexpectedly puts a new country on the cinematic map and introduces the West to a wholly new culture as the same time. Because Souleymane Ciss'e, a filmmaker from Mali, has done exactly that in Yeelen ("Brightness" or "The Light"), his film is nothing less than a landmark film of African and Third World cinema. The film does falter somewhat when evaluated purely on its artistic merits, but Ciss'e's filmmaking process has an unmistakably strong cultural and historical value.

The film tells the story of a young man named Nianankoro (Issiaka Kane) who has gained knowledge of the rites of the Komo, or science of the gods. Nianankoro's father Soma (Niamanto Sanogo) wants to kill his son to prevent him from becoming an equal. Now that Nianankoro has crossed the threshold into adulthood, his mother (Soumba Traore) can no longer shield him from his father's wrath, so she sends Nianankoro on a journey to gather ultimate knowledge and power. The film ends with a climactic battle between father and son.

The film's most obvious strength is its top-notch cinematic construction. The cinematographers, Jean-Noel Ferragut and Jean-Michel Humeau, have photographed the African landscape in all its ravishing beauty, and the excellent musical score by Michel Portal and Salif Ke"ita ranges from quiet bells during the film's main titles to the thumping African rhythms that accompany the film's end titles.

The collaboration of French and Mali expertise is especially noteworthy because it highlights one of the film's greatest strengths: it speaks to both African and Western cultures. Ciss'e employs the language of cinema to impart a universal value to stories and characters that otherwise might have remained the stuff of obscure Mali legends. This is a most laudable accomplishment, but Ciss'e goes even further; his film is highly successful at dramatizing the father-son confrontation with luminous and spectacular special effects. This is undoubtedly a first in African filmmaking.

Ciss'e's obvious mastery of film as an audiovisual medium enables him to avoid a potentially crippling problem. Many films that celebrate a particular cultural heritage do so not to learn from the mistakes and successes of the past but to merely wax nostalgic about how much better things were back then. Such films make the fundamental mistake of pretending that the ways of the past can function as a panacea for the realities of the present, and Ciss'e, to his immense credit, does not fall into this trap. Instead, he uses his command of the filmic medium to breathe new life into stories from the past as well as to create a film with relevance to the audiences of today.

These accomplishments can only be described as the hallmark of a world-class film artist. That is why it is all the more sobering and painful to realize that the film is plagued by a problematic narrative structure. The beginning of the film effectively and swiftly establishes the Oedipal conflict that formulates the heart of the film. The end of the film does an even better job of resolving that conflict. The middle of the film, however, establishes the central conflict over and over again when it needs to do so only once.

Hence, much of Yeelen is filled with shots of Soma (the father) seeking his son with the aid of his Kolonnkalani, or magic pestle (two bumbling servants carry the Kolonnkalani on their shoulders for comic relief). As they roam from village to village, Soma constantly appeals to the god Mari, waves his stick of horsehair, and shouts lines like "Find Nianankoro for me! Make the heavens tremble! Shake the walls!" The unnecessary repetition of similar lines reduces Soma to a one-dimensional villainous character and similarly restricts the acting range called for by the role.

Another flaw in the film is that the acting of Aoua Sangar'e, who plays Attu, the wife of Nianankoro, is fairly poor. Since Attu's role has few speaking lines, Sangar'e's acting could be overlooked were it not for the excellent performances of all the other actors -- most of whom did not have any training until Ciss'e met them. A third flaw is that some of the film's dialogue sounds horribly stilted to Western ears.

All three of these problems are undoubtedly due in part to cultural differences (possibly accentuated by the difficulties of subtitling) between the Bambara and Western cultures. In addition, the film had to be totally rewritten after the original actor playing the father died two days after a severe sandstorm brought shooting to a halt for three months.

Obviously, all these problems can distract the director from the artistic integrity of the film. However, Ciss'e demonstrated at a recent screening of Yeelen that he is an artist passionately dedicated to his work, and he will undoubtedly reach new heights in his future films. For now, it is plain that Souleymane Ciss'e has followed the path blazed by Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene to become the second major international film director to emerge from Africa. On that basis alone, Yeelen stands as a magnificent achievement.