WORLDWIDE FANTASY MONTH #7: Yeelen, by Souleymane Cissé (1987)

Type of Media: Film

Foreign films often get stereotyped as alienating and hard to relate to; black and white dramas that are too dense with metaphor and more worried about ‘breaking the rules’ than connecting with audiences. This largely isn’t fair, though. Any kind of story can come out of any country, be it a Czech slapstick comedy or a Chinese Western. Case in point: Yeelen, a Malian fantasy movie about quarreling sorcerers that takes as much from the typical hero’s journey as it does from West African culture.

Yeelen concerns a young magician named Nianankoro, on the run from his father Soma who is trying to kill him before he gets too powerful. Soma is part of a circle of magicians called the Komo, who over the years have grown selfish and corrupt with their power, and he fears Nianankoro will spread his magic to everyone instead of hoarding it like the Komo do. To escape Nianankoro journeys to his uncle Djigui, helping a king and then stealing the king’s wife along the way, in the hopes that Djigui will have an artifact that can help him defeat his father.

Though it doesn’t have much in terms of budget behind it, Yeelen is an epic fantasy movie in the same mold as Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Strip the story down to the plot beats and you have a film with the same skeleton as a lot of Hollywood blockbusters, along with familiar character archetypes. Nianankoro is quiet but honorable, fulfilling his obligations and confessing when he’s done wrong. His mother is dutiful, praying for her son’s safety while ritualistically bathing herself with milk in a river. Soma is greedy, viewing betrayal as a necessary step to power and constantly invoking the god Mari to sunder the heavens and earth to find Nianankoro.

It has a subtly different feel to it compared to Hollywood, though, because it draws from African stories (specifically Malian legends and Kenyan folk tales, at least from what I can gather) rather than typical Europeans ones. The magicians of Yeelen have a strong connection to nature, working their spells by hammering bones into the ground or sacrificing chickens. The most powerful artifacts aren’t swords or golden rings, but carved pieces of wood. When Soma is with the Komo they aren’t rubbing their hands together and cackling, but speaking in lilting sing-song voices and invoking sacred spirits and places to aid them.

Despite his limited production means, director Cissé still manages to capture some startling images to give his world its fantasy feel. The film begins with Soma burning a chicken while a great black monument in front of him simultaneously goes up in flames, and later, during another sacrifice, a simple rewind effect to make a dog walk backwards gives the scene an unsettling, otherworldly edge. One scene, when Nianankoro routes an army by conjuring flames, had me legitimately worried for the safety of the actors as they huddled and ran among what looked like very real burning brush. Even parts with no effects, like when Nianankoro and his wife Attou are wandering through the desert or the aforementioned scene with Nianankoro’s mother in the river, manage to dazzle with how well Cissé captures the natural beauty of the world.

Not many people in America pay much mind to African cinema, which is a shame because it’s a treasure trove of artful, yet down-to-earth films. You should definitely try watching Yeelen, though if you’ve never seen an African movie before maybe try starting with a film by the father of African filmmaking, Ousmane Sembene. His films Xala and Moolaade make for better introductions than Yeelen.