Took a van trip to Filmstreams and watched with Katy’s class. Set in Mali but shot in Mauritania, Sissako continues in his style of portraying a central character conflict (a murder over a dead cow) while frequently cutting away to daily life and smaller events in the surrounding town. In this case, the daily life segments involve their own, larger conflict: an invasion of the town by militant islamists attempting to impose their own laws. Inevitably these things collide as the invaders’ court decides to execute the herder who killed a fisherman, as well as the herder’s wife and another guy who seems to have simply given her a ride.

Promo screenshots stolen from Film Comment:

Wonders and horrors abound. An adulterous couple is buried then stoned to death. A Rooster Lady does inexplicable things. The local imam engages the invaders in futile discussion. Music and soccer and smoking are outlawed and punished with whippings, though the invaders are shown to be hypocrites in many of these cases, enjoying the same past times on the sly. Sissako makes them seem absurd, and could’ve made a comedy with some of the same material (a man is ordered to shorten his pants so he removes them; a jihadist can’t get through his propaganda video), but their frequent, meaningless acts of violence maintain an air of menace. As in Bamako he stages a song as an act of rebellion.

The movie keeps returning to the doomed herder and his beautiful family. Despite the repression and crime of the jihadists, it’s the herder Kidane’s murder of a fisherman who killed his prize cow which is shot as a cosmic event, ending with surely the greatest wide shot of the year as Kidane runs across the waist-deep water leaving a trail of silt, the mortally wounded fisherman struggling to his feet on the other side.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani shot Blue is the Warmest Color, which had a very different look. The only actor I think I’ve seen before is Fatoumata Diawara, a star of Genesis, as the lashed singer pictured above.

G. Kenny:

The really killing thing about all the conflict that tears this place and its people apart is how calm everyone is about it. Nobody raises his or her voices; nobody raises a hand in impulsive anger. Violence, when it occurs, is done in a very deliberate way. The jihadists need to conduct themselves “properly,” as this conveys their rectitude. But their stance only barely disguises their old-fashioned bullying. The treatment of women in particular is just misogyny with unconvincing window dressing. The jihadist who wants the young woman in marriage expects no argument; the girl is his right. And the fact that he asks for her politely, in the logic he lays out, only underscores his alleged right. It doesn’t matter anyway; if he is refused, he calmly states, “I’ll come again in a bad way.”

Peter Labuza on The Film Stage:

There is a critique here, and it is the failure of jidhadism as a cultural translator. This comes in literal form, as numerous scenes feature the jihadis having to work through translators to make their demands. … Numerous sequences feature characters simply trying to explain their point of view to one another, but the sides clearly aren’t listening. When one man confesses his deepest and most personal want to the jihadi leader, the leader asks his translator to stop. He knows that in order to continue his fight, he cannot listen. These jihadis only see prey.

Batrou is a cute student, the privileged daughter of a hardassed military governor/colonel with three wives. His youngest wife is strong-willed and troublesome (aren’t third wives always?) and close to the daughter’s age. The daughter is in love with Ba, and they hangs out with friend Seydou, studying for exams.

I’m not sure exactly what happens with the third-wife plot, or why the boys’ failing their exams helps to launch a student protest against the government (maybe the protest was already in place, and the boys just joined it), but the result is that Ba and Seydou are arrested and sent to hard training camp, where Seydou dies from the stress, and even Batrou is arrested by the unapologetic colonel.

Suddenly we’re back in familiar Cissé territory when Ba’s grandfather hears of his arrest, puts on his tribal garb and heads for the trees to make sacrifices and wish for supernatural assistance in overthrowing the colonel’s evil plans. Walks out of the trees into the colonel’s backyard and threatens him – colonel reponds as we’d expect by shooting grandpa in the back, but the bullets have no effect.

Bulletproof robes are all the ghosts of grandpa’s ancestors can provide, though – when he gets home he finds the house has been burned down and Ba is rumored to have been killed, so grandpa burns his ceremonial outfit and joins the people’s march against tyranny, which shakes up the government enough that the colonel is ordered to release Ba, who’s now free to run off with the colonel’s daughter.

This preceded Yeelen, which featured two of the same actors (the grandfather and the colonel). It lacks much of Yeelen’s striking imagery and unhinged craziness but it’s still a good movie (I liked it more than Xala) and oughtta be more readily available than it is.

N.F. Ukadike: “Ironically, Finye was partly financed by the military government of Mali. Tolerance and maturity prevailing, the government demonstrated that it is capable of listening to constructive criticism.” Kino’s promo copy plays up the romance and compares to Romeo & Juliet, says it “casts a critical eye on both the ancient and modern values.”

M. Dembrow: “In reality, young Malians would have to wait ten years after the making of Finyé for the military regime of Moussa Traoré to crumble. But with this film—and with Yeelen as well—Souleymane Cissé gave them powerful images of hope and resolve.”

Jacob has many kids. His favorite son was killed by animals (bible scholar Katy tells me he’s not really dead) so Jacob is in mourning. King Hamor’s son wants to marry Jacob’s daughter Dina (after kidnapping/raping her), but Jacob’s not responding to requests nor is he acknowledging any of his children. Meanwhile, his brother Esau is lurking with his warriors. Jacob’s sons kill all of Hamor’s people (including Dina’s would-be husband) and there’s gonna be a three-way showdown, but Jacob comes to his senses in time and his clan goes off to Egypt where they’ll presumably find his not-dead son.


I also dug the flashback stories in the middle… and Jacob’s climactic nighttime battle with God. There’s lots more that I did not get. Found the movie hard to follow, but I think a passing familiarity with the bible (maybe the book of genesis) would’ve helped some. Was nice to watch anyway, with all the great desert locations, color-coordinated outfits and completely decent actors, a welcome change from the film-fest screeners that have become my constant sorrow.

Albino musician Salif Keita, whose music I’m not all that into:

Of the lead actors, Salif Keita (Esau) is better known as a musician (he composed for Yeelen), Sotigui Kouyaté (Jacob) and Fatoumata Diawara (Dina) costarred in Sia, the Dream of the Python a couple years later in Burkina Faso, and Balla Moussa Keita (Hamor) appeared in Sissoko’s Guimba the Tyrant and a bunch of Souleymane Cissé films including Yeelen. Hamor is also the guy I would least recognize if I saw him again, unless he was wearing that coiled-white-tube getup.


Helpful bit from the distributor: “Based on the book of Genesis, chapters 33-37, the film follows the bitter rivalry between brothers Jacob and Esau and the resulting cycle of violence, with Sissoko mixing relevant allusions to African history and culture into the Biblical tale.”

NY Times called it confused and rambling. “Complicating matters is the involvement of Hamor, the leader of the Canaanities, when his son Sichem abducts Jacob’s daughter Dina (Fatoumata Diawara) and rapes her, then falls in love with her. In the most disturbing scene, a temporary peace is negotiated when Hamor accedes to Jacob’s demand that the Canaanite men be circumcised, and the obedient Canaanites glumly line up to be circumcised by a knife-wielding blacksmith.”


Sissoko: “In the Bible, there is a fraternity which does not stop conflict: we love one another and we fight. This is more and more apparent in the world today, in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and in northern Mali. The same enmities existed amongst the patriarchs of the three great monotheistic religions. … In our farming and herding societies, people reinforce the rivalry between the nomads and farmers: the situation is analogous with that at the beginning of time.”

Movie was written by a French theologist. Sissoko only made one film after this then became Mali’s minister of culture. According to wikipedia, he’s off the government payroll as of late 2007, so maybe there’ll be another film soon.

Katy, here’s the link I told you about.

Was beaten out by a Maurice Pialat film for the Palme d’or at Cannes, but it still won the jury prize (not the GRAND jury prize – I don’t know exactly how things work at Cannes).

Terrific-looking, bizarre film from Mali (large, landlocked, northwest Africa).

Niankoro (N.) has some sort of magical powers. He and his mom have been hiding out, but dad is hot on their trail, so they go off to find help. While she prays in the swamp, pouring milk over herself, N goes looking for an uncle. His father Soma has a magical post (and two non-magical post-carriers, AND a twin brother with his own post) which may lead him to N. N stops in a village, tries to help out, defeats some bandits and offers to help the king impregnate his youngest wife. But then N impregnantes her himself and gets to keep her. N finally gets a wooden wing from the good uncle, combines it with the gem he got from mom, and confronts his dad with apocalyptic results. Overall, it’s sort of a goofy Western. Or a Malian Star Wars?

The web tells me “Yeelen is the adaptation to film of one of the great oral epics of the Bambara people, set in the thirteenth century, during the period of the Mali Empire.” Katy sent me a long PDF file explaining the mythology but I haven’t read it yet.

Movie opens with a rooster being burned to death… Soma also burns an albino man but not on-screen.

Michael Dembrow helpfully interprets:

Though set in a time far from history, Yeelen clearly reflects Mali’s contemporary situation in 1987, when Mali was firmly in the grips of the military dictatorship of Moussa Traoré. Cissé has acknowledged the difficulty that he would have had in mounting a direct critique of the regime: ‘As my own experiences have shown, what you narrate may also put you into trouble. Sometimes in order to survive a hostile environment one is forced, not necessarily to disarm, but to construct a narrative that is not too political nor devoid of pungent criticism of the system’.

It is difficult not to connect Niankoro with the young men and women who were willing to risk their lives for positive change in the last days of the Traoré regime. Looking within the tradition, taking guidance from those elders whose connection with the positive aspects of the tradition remains intact, they are attempting a synthesis of tradition and the modern. These are people who know how to listen to the song of the Sankofa bird–those who heed the values of the past in order to proceed to a moral, community-building vision of the future. From the vantage point of 1987, the film predicts the violent upheavals of 1991 that would produce many sacrifices, but ultimately new hope for the generations to come.