Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Unbearable Brightness Of Being

Directed By Souleymane Cisse
Yeelen is amazing hypnotic, cosmic, mythic, comming of age film, that doesn’t need the exotic label of being the “African film”, to be enjoyed and respected as the highest quality of movie making we (by which I mean humans) have available to us as a form of communication. The use of images, landscapes, dialogue, editing, and mis en scene have few parallels (or equals) with any other film makers I’ve seen. The final duel in the film recalls Sergio Leone in its prolonged close ups and silence, but I can scarcely think of any others, maybe Andrei Tarkovsky in the fullness of his "materialism", but the comparison is reaching. My point is there is nothing like this in our hemisphere, or as African contemporary director and novelist Ousamane Sembene wrote, “there is no equivalent in any of the languages of West Africa for the word art”. As radically alien as that may sound, Yeelen like so many great African films Ive seen recently, create their own definitions and methedologies of expression. If there wasnt a west african word for "art" before Sembene and Cisse, there certainly is after watching these films, if the word is to mean anything at all.
The first scene got the film picketed by PETA because it shows a live chicken impaled on a stake and set on fire, as a sorcerer performs a ritual. He walks in circles around a giant totem, and begs his gods to crush the sky and split the earth open that he may find his enemies. This scene at first looks like a documentary on African magic and animist religion until suddenly and inexplicably the totem and the chicken burst into flames, and we see that the gods have answered. The next shot is of a young man named Nianankoro gazing into a basin full of water observing the old man in the waters reflection casting spells against him. We learn the young man is the old man’s son. The father/sorcerer fears that his son will grow more powerful than him and seeks to destroy him before he comes of age. The old man has told his fellow wizards that his son has stolen their secrets and fled to a foreign land, and so they use a giant post which has to be carried by two men and wrapped in a shroud like the arc of the coven, and used as a giant dowsing rod, which finds whatever it is demanded to locate. The two slaves who hold the pole for the evil wizard are often barely able to control it, as it runs literally runs away with them.Ninankoro journeys through 16th century Mali, interacting with various other tribes like the Dogon and the Peul, and taking a path that will eventually unite them as modern nation and notion of Mali. His journey is the classic coming of age tale, but it also tells the story of a nation coming together. Along the way he uses his magic to summon bees to fend off an approaching army, fights off one of his evil uncles, inexplicably sleeps with the wife of a king, and is purified by a sacred waterfall before his final battle. The dialog is utilitarian with the characters only saying what they need to say to advance the plot in the form of most fantasy stories and folk tales. However the constant chants and prayers of the more spiritual characters; Ninankoro’s good uncle, his father, and mother, all imbue the film with a kind of divine poetry, that plays off the landscapes in ways that resonate with Terrance Malick’s work.
Much of what we learn from the story is communicated visually, through use of the basic elements of life; earth, wind, fire, water, and light. The films title translates as Brightness. When the evil wizard prays to his God he summons fires and is shown largely on a dusty, barren, and besides his slaves, solitary path. When Ninankoro’s mother prays to a Goddess for her sons protection she is immersed to her waist in a lake surrounded by reeds. Water comes up again when Ninankoro is purified by the waterfall along the gorgeous cliffs which overlook the savannas. Visually we are lead to associate water with femininity (its Ninankoro’s mother who sends him on his quest), life, change, greenery, while the elements of earth and fire are associated with masculinity, tradition, destruction, and I would imagine impotence. The evil wizard is being led around literally, by his magic post. The one section of the film I found hard to understand initially was Ninankoro’s off camera sexual encounter with a kings wife. Only seconds before he sees her smiling and surrounded by a radiant light. This light returns at the end of the film when Ninankoro and his father have their Sergio Leone face off, each using a magic relic they have found and shape shifting into various animals, in Merlinesque one-upsmanship, until the very earth beneath them seems to tear apart and become volcanic. They are both consumed by a blinding light. Whatever this primal light is, it seems to have acted earlier in the film causing Ninankoro’s affair with one of the Puel Kings wives he was told to help get pregnant. Well he helps her all right, and the king though clearly disappointed, allows them both to live and leave the village.
Though both Ninankoro and his new wife (who is not thrilled to be going away with a stranger), are both confused and guilt ridden as to what exactly happened between them, their union through their child will ultimately help (though not shown on screen), unite their divided peoples, whose caste system seems to involve the use or inability to use magic; the secret arts the evil wizard is hell bent on preserving. While the evil wizards twin brother, Ninankoro’s good uncle tells the boy to “reveal secrets so that all might benefit,”. One of the last images we see in the film is of Ninankoro’s son holding an egg, which he digs out of the sand; a symbol for life and history’s generational resilience even in the harshest climates. I first heard of this film in Jonathan Rosenbaum's “Film As Politics” where he brings it up as a contrast to the films of John Woo as example of the great foreign cinema that doesnt get American distribution. And though I definitely agree with him and feel privileged to have found a film of this scope and magnitude, after watching it I’m left to wonder about Rosenbaum’s critiques of other modern mythic films like Star Wars, which he writes off as narcissistic voyeurism whose Oedipul mythologizing is the result of film studies programs trying to remain relevant and beholden to Hollywood market forces. I wont mince words, by saying Yeelen is clearly the better film, but the two films regardless of origin do tell almost the exact same story of a young boy who goes on a quest and learns to use magical powers in order to ultimately defeat his wicked father.Cisse himself has said "I used the Bambara and Dogon people in Yeelen. But I could have used Zulu people or American Indians. It's something we're able to express for any society. The bad father, for instance, is selfishness…The cinema is universal for me. It's not because cinema was created by Europeans, by 'whites'--a term I don't like to use, because I like to talk about mankind, not to refer to color... The person who had the genius to create cinema didn't do it just for himself or his people but for all humanity. People [who don't know Bambara culture] go beyond, they see the history of mankind in that film[Yeelen]….The day when African cinema reaches the level of the other cinemas, we won't be talking in these terms.". Is this not basically identical to George Lucas’ claim to the universality of his own arch typical heroes journey? Doesnt Cisse say he aims (and hits the mark)of a trully timeless (a term I prefer to universal) quality, that transcends easy Hollywood/The-Rest-Of-Planet-Earth binary?
Cisse goes on to make two almost paradoxical statements, that African film scholar Michael Dembrow thankfully gives us a window into: “Though set in a time far from history, Yeelen clearly reflects Mali’s contemporary situation in 1987, when Mali was firmly in the grips of the military dictatorship of Moussa Traoré." Cissé has acknowledged the difficulty that he would have had in mounting a direct critique of the regime: ‘As my own experiences have shown, what you narrate may also put you into trouble. Sometimes in order to survive a hostile environment one is forced, not necessarily to disarm, but to construct a narrative that is not too political nor devoid of pungent criticism of the system”. So though broad in its horizons and anthropological appeal the film does till tackle real life issues, it just finds a cultural flash point to it’s quest, which though similar in scope to epics like Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings is more historical, more spiritual, more political, more gender concious, and altogether more fulfilling, if less overtly emotional and easily accessible. I’ve seen only handful of films which have given me a real sense of what I could call sincerely spiritual experiences (Its not necessarily what I look for in art or film). They range from Bad Lieutenant, The Sacrifice, The Passion Of Joan of Arc, portions of the recent Love Exposure, and now Yeelen (which is the only one that in no way involves Christianity). The “brightness” of Yeelen exists on its own terms, like a miniature sun, with its own orbit and constellations. The film contains a history and mythology built into it, which is admittedly a little hard to get a hold off at first (the film opens with several title cards describing various sacred objects and beliefs of ancient Mali; a now predominantly Muslim country), but with a little patience and open mind, I guarantee this will be one of the best films you will ever see. "At the beginning of my work, I didn't have technical material means or the money, and I had a strong desire to make films...So I adopted a realist style. I worked with nonprofessionals, I located my stories in the contemporary period, I chose situations where I would not need artificial lighting." After three successful features, "I allowed myself to dream."-Souleymane Cisse

No comments: