Souleymane Cissé

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desert, myth, tradition
Film (feature film)
Africa, Western
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May 22, 2003
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Souleymane Cissé
Souleymane Cissé © article.asp?rub=1&sp_ref=41


The light of African film against the white perspe

Souleymane Cissé, who was born in Mali in 1940, is rightly regarded as the "patron" of African film. His masterpiece, "Yeelen – Light" received the Jury Prize in Cannes in 1987. His films describe everyday life in his homeland, using poetic images. He is the Chairman of the "Union des créateurs et entrepreneurs du cinéma et de l`audiovisuel de l`Afrique de l`Ouest".
"In Africa" there is everything, "but nothing really exists. There is everything because it contains an exceptional human ability to perform, a cultural performance. Herein lies the incredible wealth. Some try to deny this wealth, but it is nevertheless a reality which has become deeply embedded in African culture, variety, tradition and glory – in everything which "Yeelen" portrays in its almost raw state. But I get the impression that those with whom power lies are not aware of this situation. They do nothing to channel and reap this cultural wealth. It is my duty to set my roots in this culture in order to be able to inherit part of it." This is how Souleymane Cissé, born in 1940 in Bamako, Mali, described the impetus behind his film "Yeelen", which won the Jury´s Prize at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.

With "Yeelen – Light", Cissé, who studied Philosophy and Film in Moscow, probably created the first great African film. He belongs to those directors who have significantly influenced African film aesthetics and achieved international recognition for African film in the eighties. Souleymane Cissé´s film, whose main colour is the sunshine, is almost unique in simultaneously pointing to reality and to Africa´s visions. The film shows the initiation drama of the Peulh, a mythical father-son conflict. "Yeelen" means "Light", which stands at the centre of the film on different levels. A gleaming, destructive light is the greatest magic in this mythical story of good and bad magic – of the master of secret rites who does not want to allow his son to attain the same magical art.
As the tradition requires, Nianankoro should one day uphold the secrets of the Bambara. But his father, a magician, prefers to kill his son rather than pass on his power. The mother flees with the small child, taking the "wings of the Kôré", the symbol of the speed of the human spirit with her. It is the only thing that can compete with the power of "Komo", the incarnation of heavenly wisdom, which the father has at his disposal. After years of flight, Nianankoro´s powers mature and he faces the conflict.

"Yeelen" is partly made in reaction against the ethnographic films from Europe, as Cissé comments. "I wanted to react to an outside perspective, the perspective of white scholars and technicians, a foreign perspective which sometimes tends to make the Africans objects, animals to be shown with their exotic rites."

Yeelen is the second part of a trilogy, to which "Finyé – Wind" (1982) and "Waati – Time" (1995) belong. "Waati" is a film about "heat and embers, and especially sand and the desert inside people," as the 10-year-old Aïcha Dicko, who plays the adopted daughter of the protagonist, Nandi, explains. The film tells the story of her life. The daughter of a black landowner defends herself against the arbitrary nature of the Apartheid regime and must flee the country. When Nelson Mandela is released, she dares to return to South Africa, but discovers that nothing has changed in the long years of her absence.

It is a committed film which is exemplary in portraying the homelessness of the African continent and simultaneously shows that time, "Waati", does not heal all wounds. As in all of his 30 films, Cissé also expresses respect and sympathy for simple people in his most recent work, thereby commenting on the abuse of power in post-colonial Africa.
This is also the subject of the first part of the trilogy. In "Finyé - Wind", the students Bah, the son of a chief, and Batrou, the daughter of a military governor, rebel against the ruling system in Mali. When student demonstrations are crushed by military violence, both experience an open conflict with their parents. Bah must submit to the traditional rules of the family. Batrou falls out with her father. Due to political activities, they are arrested and must learn to find the necessary strength for their struggle.

Events at the HKW:
13 August 1999
Cinema TriContinental
Major directors from Africa, Asia and Latin America
Organiser: House of World Cultures
Author: Ulrich Joßner 


Souleymane Cissé was born on 21 April, 1940 in Bamako in Mali. He studied Philosophy and Film in Moscow. After several short films, he began to shoot feature films. His films have been shown at many festivals, including Cannes, Ouagadougou and Carthage. He won the Cannes Jury´s Prize for his film "Yeelen – Light" in 1987.


Waati (Time)

Film / TV,

Yeelen (Light)

Film / TV,

Finyé (Wind)

Film / TV,

Baara (Work)

Film / TV,

Den Muso

Film / TV,

Cinq Jours d´une vie

Film / TV,


Film / TV,

Sources d´inspiration

Film / TV,

L´Homme et les idoles

Film / TV,