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African master
The films of Souleymane Cissé


"Sympathetic Magic:The Cinema of Souleymane Cissé"
At the Harvard Film Archive November 16-19.

The subject of a retrospective this weekend at the Harvard Film Archive, Souleymane Cisse is one of the first generation of African filmmakers, and he’s long been in the vanguard of a film culture he helped create. His work exemplifies one of African cinema’s main trends: the movement from social realism to the recovery of tradition.

Trained in Moscow, the Malian director took up the camera determined to make films about the problems and needs of post-independence African society. Baara (1978; Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 9:30 p.m.), his second feature, won him an international reputation. Set in Bamako, the capital of Mali, it looks at the bourgeoisie through the lives of two couples. Young engineer Balla Traore and his wife were both educated in Europe. At the textile factory he manages, Traore is a progressive who tells the workers to address him by his name rather than as "Boss," saves the jobs of 200 of them, and engages them in a discussion of their needs. At home, he’s less enlightened: he forbids his wife to work, regarding her as a trophy to be embellished and shown off to his boss and others on social occasions.

Then there’s the company’s director, Sissoko, and his wife, Djenaba. Sissoko’s main concerns are with keeping the government paid off, his wife in line, and his workers cheap. He maintains ties to tradition: in an extraordinary scene, he is praised in the street by a griot and two women singers, whom he rewards with money. Meanwhile, Djenaba is surly to her husband and is having secret affairs with his associates.

The primary formal strategy of this calm, objective film is the accumulation of vignettes. Djenaba makes herself up for a lover, then wanders into her children’s room like a visitor from another planet; a young porter returns from the city to his rural home, where he is greeted by a smiling young woman who gives him a drink; the camera pans across a group of porters who have been arrested for not having papers and are now just waiting for something to happen to them. Each interlude has a suspended quality that’s sometimes threatening, sometimes relaxed and lovely; together the dispersed scenes give a full sense — astonishing for such a brief film (only 90 minutes) — of a fragmented people in a state of undeclared civil war.

Hailed as a masterpiece on its release, Yeelen (1987; Saturday at 7 p.m.) remains one of the most celebrated of all African films. Young Nianankoro, a member of the Bambara people of Mali, goes on an initiatory journey. His father, a magician, fearing that his son will steal his power from him, seeks to kill him. Nianankoro’s mother gives him a protective fetish and sends him in search of his uncle, who’s also a sorcerer. Along the way, Nianankoro uses his magic powers to help a kingdom threatened by invaders and then acquires a wife. The inevitable showdown between the hero and his father takes an apocalyptic turn that leads to a profound and magisterial ending.

Conceived on a larger scale than Baara, Yeelen is a more expansive production, with fluid tracking shots, an emphasis on natural beauty, and a sometimes almost ecstatic sensitivity to different qualities of light (in Bambara, "yeelen" means "light," or "brightness"). Cisse tells the epic story in a slow and subtle way and with considerable humor. He reveals the central conflict from various perspectives, so that we see it within larger patterns of intercultural relationships, morality, and the survival or betrayal of the past. He shows the reality of the supernatural through the simplest technical means: multiple exposures, characters freezing when spells are cast on them, and — in a great shot — reverse motion. Rather than introducing it as some kind of special effect, he de-exoticizes magic and links it to the most basic properties of cinema. Critic Charles Tesson called Yeelen "science-fiction filmed by Louis LumiŹre . . . a 2001 of African cinema." It’s an apt comparison, if a misleading one because it fails to make clear how much better Cisse’s film is than Kubrick’s: more rigorous, more passionate, more resonant.

The Harvard series also includes Finye (1981; Friday at 9:15 p.m. and Monday at 9 p.m.) and Waati (1995; Sunday at 7 p.m.). Cisse will be present at the screenings Friday through Sunday.

Issue Date: November 15 - 22, 2001

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