Writings of the general word's body

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Souleymane Cisse in retrospect

I promised to post my 2005 article on the Souleymane Cisse film retrospective, and how British Consulate officials rained on the Malian director's parade and denied him a visa to attend a screening of his modern classic, Yeelen, at the Barbican in London.

This below was originally published in The Guardian, Lagos, on November 27, 2005...

Souleymane Cisse Film Season… in Retrospect
By Molara Wood

A film retrospective on Souleymane Cisse at the Barbican Centre, London, was much anticipated, coming as it did on the heels of Ousmane Sembene’s appearance in the city earlier this year. Although not nearly on the same scale as the Sembene programme at the National Film Theatre, the short season of five films by Cisse was nevertheless significant. It was to include a stage appearance by the director, following the special screening of his international hit film, Yeelen (The Light).

Winner of the Cannes Jury Prize 1987,
Yeelen is one of the most acclaimed and widely seen African films ever made.

Born in Bamako, Mali, in 1940, Cisse studied in Moscow under the Soviet director Mark Donskoi, and on return to his country, worked as a documentary filmmaker for the Ministry of Information before embarking on his own cinematic career. The director’s first short film, Five Days in a Life, was made in 1972; his first feature length movie, Den Muso (The Young Girl), followed in 1975.

Den Muso - about a young mute woman who is raped and becomes pregnant, with disastrous consequences for her family - formed part of the Barbican season of Cisse’s work. Also on the programme were: Baara (Work, 1978), about the condition of workers in the city; Finye (The Wind, 1982), about a love affair between an army commander‘s daughter and the grandson of a tribal chief; and Waati (1995), a rarely-seen work about racial politics in South Africa. The season was to kick off with Yeelen, then the director would take the stage to discuss his work.

Africa at the Pictures, an organisation that seeks to promote and enhance the distribution and exhibition of African films in Europe - organised the event. The Barbican described Cisse as someone who “crafted a body of films that combine visual elegance with Marxist ideology and allegorical storytelling. Drawing on traditional indigenous lifestyles and Malian folklore, Cisse attempts to explore the conflicts in Mali society, particularly the conflicts that emerge between the desire for change and the need to preserve tradition.”

The first sign that all might not be well, came on the Thursday on which Cisse was due to be making his Barbican appearance. The venue’s website confused matters, indicating that the event would take place on the following day - Friday. Those who turned up on Friday, were in for a disappointment. Indeed, Yeelen would be shown, but the director himself would not now appear - an assistant at the ticket desk informed. He revealed that this was because Souleymane Cisse had not been granted a visa to travel to Britain. One wondered whether the assistant had gone beyond his brief, and went into the cinema hall hoping the report would turn out to be a piece of misinformation.

Another sign that perhaps all was not well, was an unusual sign just at the entrance to the auditorium. Unusual, because one does not normally encounter such at a prestigious venue like the Barbican. The sign apologised in advance for the ‘poor print quality’ of the film we were about to see. Inside, a sizeable audience awaited the entrance of Souleymane Cisse, only for another man to saunter onto the stage, looking like he would have preferred to be elsewhere. It was Keith Shiri, the director of Africa at the Pictures. An apologetic Shiri informed that Cisse would not give the Screen Talk as expected, due “to a lot of complications with getting people from Africa, especially from Mali.” The ticketing assistant had been right afterall: a Cannes Award winning filmmaker, one of Africa’s best, had been refused a visa to enter Britain - in the year of Africa 05.

A clearly disappointed Shiri said: “We wanted him to be here. This (Yeelen) is one of my favourite films and Cisse is one of my favourite film-directors, one whose work I always refer to.” He explained further, that African filmmakers always carry their own films when they travel, and Cisse was to have done the same. His inability to travel scuppered the whole arrangement. Africa at the Pictures therefore had to get a less-than-perfect print of the film as a last resort, from distributors Artificial Eye, and Cisse consented for this to be shown instead, hence the poor quality of the film we were about to see. Shiri hopes he will succeed in bringing the director over to the UK next year.

"Knowledge is built and consolidated by one generation, it is destroyed by another, and recreated by a new generation," Cisse once said, on the role of indigenous film and culture. And in Yeelen, a young warrior, Nianankoro, must face his destiny by destroying a corrupt older elite represented by the secret Komo cult. A leading figure of that cult is Nianankoro‘s own father and his greatest enemy, Soma. Often described as “an oedipal story mixed with magic,” Yeelen is an adaptation of an ancient oral legend from Mali.

Cisse takes his audience to the powerful Mali Empire of the 13th century, where Nianankoro and his aged, wizened mother have been on the run for ten years from his father, an evil sorcerer who does not want his son as an equal, and so seeks to destroy him. With the aid of a magic post (used in ancient Mali to find lost things), Soma goes up and down the land in search of the son he wants to kill. Two bumbling servants carry - or are driven to distraction - by the wilful post, to great comic effect. Nianankoro too, is sent to seek the help of his blind uncle, Soma’s twin brother. Along the way, the young warrior learns to use his magic powers for good, discovers himself, and acquires a wife in traumatic circumstances.

All the while, he readies for the confrontation with the father, which may end in the “luminous death” of one or both of them. “I think one can die without ceasing to exist,” goes a line in the film; and Souleymane Cisse, in depicting the death of one culture, makes way for the birth of a new one.

Nianankoro is played by Issiaka Kane, an actor whose stark physical grace carries the film - through scenes of war, magic, hallucinations and full-frontal nudity. But the real star of the film is the West African landscape, as the warrior journeys through arid lands of the ancient Bambara and Fulani peoples. Not even the ‘poor print quality’ could detract from the landscape, which, thanks to the excellent cinematography, astonishes the viewer with its parched beauty.

Yeelen is regarded by some as Africa’s greatest film. Pity the British Consulate in Africa was not impressed enough to grant its maker a visa. At the end of the Barbican screening, the audience gave the absent director a respectful applause. By this simple gesture, cinema goers gave their own verdict - both on the director and his work, and those who would not allow him into Britain.

Keith Shiri (right) photographed with actress Kate Henshaw-Nuttal at the Africa Movie Academy Awards Nominations Night in Nairobi on February 25, 2011 - Photo by MW.

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