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This combination of ancient myths from Africa's Bambara people in the country of Mali is one of the most unusual fantasy films of the 1980s, not to mention a rare snapshot of a culture rarely seen depicted on celluloid for many English-speaking audiences. Yeelen (1987, whose title means "Brightness") charts the journey of Nainkoro (Issiaka Kane), a young man gifted with supernatural powers, who sets off to vanquish his powerful sorcerer father, Soma (Niamanto Sanogo). En route to seek guidance from his wise uncle at the urging of his mother, he finds his powers useful in a series of mystical encounters.
Drawing on local professional and amateur acting talent, Yeelen is usually classified as an African film, though some of its crew members were French. Director Souleymane Ciss was born in Mali and cut his teeth on documentaries and short films, following film school training in Moscow. This was actually his fourth feature film following such productions as Five Days in a Life (1973) and The Girl (1975), a controversial feature about the aftermath of a girl's rape. Its French financing (which was forbidden at the time for a local production) even landed Ciss in jail.
Situated just below Algeria, Mali is depicted here at its most sprawling state in the 13th century, originally an empire covering much of the Sahara. The film hints at the area's turbulence to come in later centuries, including its absorption into the French Sudan in the 1800s and its fusion with Senegal in 1959. The modern incarnation of Mali came into being soon after as the single-party Republic of Mali, with a political coup creating multiple parties in 1991 (just four years after the release of this film). The country made headlines again in 2012 with a series of violent clashes in the northern region involving a military coup, Islamist rebels, and aiding French forces, with the election process finally restored in the summer of 2013. French remains the dominant language there, though the vernacular Bambara is also common (among a multitude of other languages) and is the one used in Ciss's film, which also reflects the Muslim theology found in elements of the narrative.
Now regarded as the director's most significant achievement, Yeelen screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987, complete with an enigmatic synopsis in the program guide: "Sand overruns the earth. The sun draws nearer the planet. A dreadful drought invades the Sahel. And cruelly the conflicts of generations tear apart the Bambaras." It went on to win the Jury Prize (a first for an African filmmaker) and often appears on critics' lists of significant world cinematic achievements.
By Nathaniel Thompson