Yeelen (1987)

Yeelen (1987)

An epic, spellbinding myth from Mali brought to life by one of Africa’s greatest filmmakers

The Very Best

8.0

Movie

Burkina Faso, France
Bambara, Fulah
Drama
1987
SOULEYMANE CISSÉ
Aoua Sangare, Balla Moussa Keita, Ismaila Sarr
105 min

TLDR

Don’t just take it from us — this is also one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite movies.

What it's about

In the 13th century Mali Empire, a young man with magical powers is being hunted by his jealous sorcerer father and must journey across nations to seek help from his uncle.

The take

Celebrated Malian filmmaker Souleyman Cissé crafted Yeelen (which means ‘brightness’) as an explicit antidote to the “ethnographic” lens through which Western directors often told Africa-set stories. That intention is certainly felt, because Yeelen doesn’t trouble itself to translate its folklore-drawn premise for audiences unfamiliar with 13th-century Malian myths. Rejecting Western storytelling conventions, it instead uses those of the culture it depicts — a looping approach to time and matter-of-fact magical realism — to present the tale of Nianankoro (Issiaka Kane), a supernaturally gifted young man whose sorcerer father (Niamanto Sanogo) plots to kill him because of the threats he poses to the elder man's power. 

 A basic primer to the customs central to Yeelen is provided in the opening titles, but knowledge of the culture it communicates through isn’t a prerequisite to watching and enjoying the film because its epic conflicts — both Oedipal (father versus son) and religious (flesh versus spirit) — and otherworldly sensibilities make it both instinctively familiar and mesmerizing. A deserved winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, though the fact that it was the first African film to win one of the festival's awards — 40 years into its existence — makes this an unjustly belated milestone.

What stands out

Yeelen’s ability to transfix viewers is partly thanks to its cinematography, which makes the film’s contrasting landscapes feel as breathtaking and epic as the narrative. The magical visuals — particularly in the climactic showdown between Nianankoro and his father — are also stark and striking, as unlike anything you’re likely to have seen as the plot is.

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