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.