Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Cinematic African magic: Cisse’s ‘Yeelen’ at iMPAC short-film festival

In a discussion of African beliefs in magic, Ryszard Kapuscinski (in The Shadow of the Sun, 2002) describes the strange nocturnal behaviour of a group of men, carrying someone on a stretcher on the outskirts of a village where he and his guide were spending the night, dashing furtively from shrub to shrub instead of walking openly. When he questioned his guide about the villagers the next day, the latter simply replied that they belonged to the tribe of the Amba, and added, “Kabila mbaya” (roughly, “bad people”; p. 185).

To understand the puzzling behaviour of the villagers, one has to keep in mind, in Kapuscinski’s words, that (p. 185): “People like the Amba and their kinsmen believe profoundly that the world is ruled by supernatural forces. These forces are particular – spirits that have names, spells that can be defined. It is they that inform the course of events and imbue them with meaning, decide our fate, determine everything. For this reason nothing happens by chance; chance simply does not exist.”

If something bad happens to anyone in this sphere of belief in supernatural powers, it is usually attributed to the agency of a wizard – either in the shape of what is known in English as a “witch”, the very incarnation of evil, or of a “sorcerer”, which is less incorrigibly demonic, but still capable of casting potent spells on people.

None of this should sound unfamiliar to even the most hardened rationalist or scientist, provided they have some historical memory – after all, not only is there hardly a culture in the world that has not gone through a phase of its history marked by a similar belief in human susceptibility to magical or demonic powers (think of the persecution of witches in Europe in the 16th century), but even our own modern/postmodern culture still bears clear signs of its continued hold on people’s minds. What else do popular games like Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, or literary and cinematic works like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series represent, if not a lingering belief in magic?

The pervasive presence of the supernatural in certain African contexts was vividly brought home to me recently at the iMPAC festival presented by The Open Window School of Visual Communication and Film Art, in Yeelen (Brightness), a 1987 film by Souleymane Cisse of Mali. The film’s title resonates with the ironic title of Kapuscinski’s book, Shadow of the Sun, because Africa is the continent of the sun, first and foremost, as Kapuscinski acknowledges where, at the beginning, he evokes the effect of sunrise on an African village – everything comes to life, instantaneously, when the sun appears.

Yeelen, too, opens with the image of the red sun rising, and ends with the excavation of two large eggs from the sand, intimating not merely the indissoluble bond between the sun and life itself, but simultaneously and specifically the Bambara people of Africa’s conception of a cyclical, Phoenix-like universe, where destruction is perpetually followed by rebirth, denoted here by the eggs.

These two events frame the narrative of a struggle between an evil sorcerer father (Soma), intent on the destruction of his supposedly wayward son (Nianankoro), who similarly possesses magical powers, and in the end faces his father courageously, armed with a magical object of great power – enough to match that of his father’s magical pole.

Before the climactic, ultimately Oedipal confrontation between father and son, one witnesses the unfolding of narrative events, from the crucial scene of the young man in conversation with his mother (who instructs him on what he should do to preclude being summarily destroyed by his powerful father), to his mother bathing herself in milk in supplication to the gods for her son’s safety, his father immolating chickens (not for squeamish viewers) and exhorting the gods to reveal his rebellious son so that he (Soma) can annihilate him, Nianankoro using his occult powers to rescue King Rouma Boll’s tribe from the aggression of a hostile tribe, unintentionally sleeping with the king’s young wife, Attu (whose barrenness he was asked to cure by the king), and being given Attu by the king as his own wife.

Throughout the rich narrative, conveyed in surprisingly simple, lucid image-sequences, the viewer is never allowed to forget that she or he is perceptually complicit with subjects inhabiting a universe suffused with inescapable occult powers. The force of these powers, called upon by Soma in several scenes, is vividly illustrated by his ability to manipulate time, evoked cinematically by reverse-sequences showing an albino man and a dog “walking back in time” for Soma to use them as sacrifices to the deity.

In the final confrontation between father and son, the unbearable, lethal brightness (Yeelen) that emanates from their respective occult objects encapsulates the paradoxical implications of the film – brightness, associated with the sun, is simultaneously the condition of life, but can also be the source of death (darkness). This recalls Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and its cinematic counterpart, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, both of which are premised on this strange convolution of light (brightness) and dark, succinctly expressed in the saying, “the heart of darkness is light” (and vice versa, of course).

Hence, any viewer who might look at this film with the vaunted sense of superiority of someone supposedly emancipated once and for all from its pervasive sense of being subject, willy-nilly, to magical forces, should remind themselves that its unmistakably African particularity is only one of its aspects. Behind this there hides a universally human susceptibility to what Freud, in a memorable essay, refers to as the “uncanny” and what scholars like C.S. Lewis called the “numinous” – an awareness that may strike one unpredictably, that within the ordinary there lurks something alien to its very ordinariness.

The manifestation of the uncanny, as Freud points out, turns on as simple an occurrence as the inexplicable repetition, in experience, of a certain number (say, number 9), or encountering ostensibly the “same” object (such as a red Alfa Romeo) in quick succession, which transmutes the everyday instantly into a flash of what may be furthest from one’s beliefs: the uncanny, or the occult. Upon realising this, viewers would not find it difficult to understand that the Africanness of Yeelen reverberates with a spectrum of beliefs encountered in many religions – neither Christianity and Islam, nor Judaism and Hinduism, are exempt from the imprint of the supernatural; in fact, it is constitutive of these religions.

In the final analysis Yeelen is itself a potent metaphor of the fusion of the modern and postmodern (film technology) with the premodern (the still widespread, if often overlooked, belief in supernatural forces). In this, it is not alone. There are many examples of non-African cinema which thematise the occult as well, of course, setting the premodern commitment to supernatural powers in collision with the techno-scientific modern world in distinctive ways. Off the top of my head I can think of neo-noir films like Stigmata and The Ninth Gate, as well as the classic horror movie, The Exorcist.

For me the most astonishing paradox of them all is the power of cinema, demonstrated here, to capture in images – more exactly through what Deleuze calls the cinema of the time-image – the constitutive features of a world that exists side by side with the more familiar 21st century world of the “network society” (Castells), that is, of computers, the internet, e-mail, smartphones, rapid air travel, quasi-instantaneous financial transactions, and so on. This may not be immediately apparent, but it is there, as this film powerfully testifies.

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    • Maria

      Some of my favorite cinema with echoes of magic and the occult are Emir Kusturica’s, with Time of the Gypsies among them. And tops among noir films that invoke the supernatural is Alan Parker’s voodoo-noir, Angelheart, which we still went to see together in New Haven at the 24-hour movie-theatre. Was it called the Lincoln? I remember well our discussions around film with Jodie Foster, who was at Yale at that time, at the Law School restaurant. Come to think of it, someone as bright as she is should have taught film, in addition to her acting career.