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Defining Africa

After a recent history of colonialism and continuing cultural and political

marginalization, African filmmakers face the difficult task of reconstructing their people’s

identity in a time when identity is becoming increasingly fluid. An influx of foreign images and

capital are redefining Africa, as Africa’s culture is still struggling to assert that, far from being

primitive and irrelevant, it has something useful and unique to offer the rest of the world. The

question of how Africans should approach modernization, both internally and in regards to its

relationship to foreign influences, is a central issue in African films.

African films frequently focus on history, politics and issues of cosmic rather than

personal significance. This philosophy may be attributed to the African notion that “the

Community is in the Individual rather than that the Individual is in the Community, as is the case

with Western genre cinema” (Tomaselli, 25). Because myths are allegories or archetypes that

represent larger communities and conflicts, filmmakers find them useful in addressing social and

political issues. For this reason, Souleyman Cissé’s Yeelen, which he claims as his “most

political” film, is based on a myth taken from the Mande oral tradition.

In Yeelen, the main character, Nianancoro, must confront and destroy his father, Soma,

who is part of the secretive, powerful, and corrupt Komo cult. Though both Nianancoro and

Soma perish in a final showdown, the movie ends with a scene of Nianancoro’s son, who

symbolizes the promise for renewal. Through this film, Cissé addresses the oppressive

corruption of a powerful cadre of self-serving politicians in African nations. While most Western

films operate primarily on a psychological or personal level, the psychological experiences of the

characters in Yeelen represent the collective experiences of entire groups of individuals in

African society.
Besides addressing Africa’s internal political problems, Yeelen must also tackle the

problem of foreign cultural imperialism. Most Hollywood versions of Africa produce exotic,

simplified, and romanticized images of Africa for the foreign visual tourist. Thus, African

filmmakers feel compelled to decolonize images of Africa by presenting more complex,

alternative views. “Critical African cinema is about the right of Africans to represent to

themselves the possibilities inherent in their past… to reconstruct their histories and pasts against

a predominantly European colonialist interpretation of those experiences” (Tomaselli, 26).

In Yeelen, Cissé presents an Africa entirely independent from foreign influences, in a time

before the arrival of Islam or Christianity. This “return to the source” type of film serves to

“prove the existence of a dynamic African history and culture before European colonization”

(Diawara, AC, 160) against dominant perceptions that African history was stagnant and is

irrelevant to the modern world. Yeelen shows that the solution to Africa’s political problems with

dictators and tyranny lies not with the embrace of Western notions of democracy, but that

democratic inspiration can come from Africa’s own past. Africa can achieve redemption by

returning to its roots, so that, as Cissé himself puts it, “colonization is only an accident along the

way” (Andrew, 231).

To illustrate the interconnectedness of past and present, Yeelen plays with time. In the

beginning, we see a shot of a rising sun. Then, the camera cuts to a burning chicken. The

camera returns to sun, which continues to move to indicate the passage of time. We then see a

scene of a young boy bringing a goat to a wooden statue. Using close-ups, the camera slowly

pans along the sacred objects of the statue. The camera cuts to and pans over a sacred pole until

we see the impaled chicken, which has not yet been burned. Then the camera cuts to show Soma

performing a ritual with this pole and chicken, which takes place in an entirely different setting

than that of the wooden statue. Because there was no establishing shot, we do not notice the

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transition from the objects of the wooden statue to Soma’s pole. When Soma sets the chicken on

fire, it is as if time has moved backwards since we had already seen the chicken immolated

earlier. The scene with the wooden statue, which appears again at the end of the film, does not

narratively fit into the film at all, so we cannot place it anywhere in this time sequence.

The scene with the wooden statue, with its slow pan over the Wing of Kore, the magical

eye, and other sacred objects, serves to set up the secrets that the viewer must decode throughout

the rest of the movie. The revisiting of this scene at the end of the film, besides emphasizing the

constancy of these objects despite the passage of time, allows us to review the objects after

having gained an understanding of their significance. Cissé seeks to “position the spectator in

the midst of these secrets and keep him/her busy looking, interpreting, discovering” (Diawara,

BFR, 15).

This process can be seen at work in a scene when two groups of warriors gather to

confront each other. There is a close-up shot of a knife, which is planted in the middle line out of

three parallel lines drawn on the ground. The camera slowly pans up the knife while zooming

out. By the time the knife drops out of the screen, instead of panning along the knife, the camera

is panning up the bodies of two opposing warriors who are facing each other. Thus, we see both

the knife and the bodies of the men as sacred, ritualized objects. The warriors put their heads

together and begin pushing, while the camera periodically cuts to the attentive faces of the

onlooking warriors. We, like the onlooking warriors, view the event with intensity because we

want to figure out what is happening. By now, we have deduced that contestants are trying to

push each other beyond the outer lines. Though we have determined the meaning of the lines,

the rest of the ritual remains a mystery. One of the cuts shows an onlooking warrior who has

trouble controlling his nervously thrashing horse. We share the onlooking warrior’s growing

sense of anxiety and interest in the outcome, for the outcome will reveal the secrets of this ritual

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to us. There is a winner and his clan chases after the loser’s fleeing clan. Here, we discover that

one individual stands for his entire community, reinforcing Tomaselli’s notion of Africans’

collectivism. Then the camera shows us the warrior who lost the contest, who takes the knife

from the ground and kills himself. We finally learn that the knife is for the loser to accept

responsibility for his failure and shame, and that the contest is a matter of life and death.

Throughout this process of discovery, the viewer must emotionally involve her/himself in

the ritual before its secrets are revealed. Instead of observing African culture from the

anthropological distance of the traditional Western viewer, Cissé forces us to become absorbed or

entranced by the rituals and sacred fetishes. Instead of using establishing shots to define the

setting, he frequently uses close-ups and slow pans so that we cannot view from a comfortable

distance. We must follow the sensual and attentive gaze of his camera if we hope to access the

secrets he puts before us.

The shooting of Yeelen “valorizes and humanizes Africans… It elevates the Komo, which

is just another barbaric ritual in anthropological films, to the level of science” (Diawara, AC,

161). Cissé shoots the rituals with such precision to show that every detail matters, that the ritual

is a science. To describe the final apocalyptic moment when the sacred objects emit a blast of

light, Professor Andrew uses terms usually reserved for science and technology: there is a

“nuclear reaction,” a “discharge of energy.” Traditionally, Western science defined itself in

opposition to the inferior practices of magic and superstition. However, Yeelen makes magic just

as valid a form of knowledge and power as Western science.

Just as it challenges the traditional dichotomy between African magic and Western

science, Yeelen also breaks down the opposition between the fantastic and the real. Cissé’s

meticulously accurate reconstruction of past rituals and cultural practices creates a realism that

nevertheless coexists with supernatural events in the film. Cissé employs numerous images to

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illustrate the African notion of unity between the magical and the material. The baobob tree, an

important African religious symbol, is firmly rooted in the solid earth while its branches aspire to

the heavens. Nianankoro activates his magical powers with his spit, a material substance that

embodies the incorporeal breath or soul (Harrow, 133).

Cissé equates this “magical realism” in Yeelen to the scientific realism of Western science

fiction films. Regarding Yeelen, he says, “We do not know the limits of science. We know how

to create, but we do not know how to protect ourselves from our creations” (Diawara, BFR, 15).

Here, we can see clear allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction film, 2001: A Space

Odyssey. In this film, a crew of astronauts on a spacecraft managed by a high-tech

supercomputer embarks on a secret journey. The supercomputer turns upon the species that

created it by killing most of the crew, but a surviving crewmember regains control of the

spacecraft through an innovative use of the technology available to him. In Yeelen a secretive

cult abuses magic while in 2001: A Space Odyssey another secretive political institution abuses

technology. Both films end apocalyptically and conclude with an image of a child that

symbolizes a fresh start and hope for the future. By drawing from a Western film classic, Cissé

affirms that knowledge in any culture, whether it be magical or scientific, can be both destructive

and creative. The presence of references to Kubrick’s film complicates the idea of Yeelen as a

purely African essentialist film. While Yeelen ostensibly portrays an Africa devoid of all foreign

influences, it borrows ideas from an American film.

Djibril Diop Mambety’s Hyenas involves a far more explicit engagement with the West

and global modernity. In this film, a wealthy well-traveled woman named Linguére returns to

the African town of Colobane to seek revenge upon Draman, a man who wronged her many

years ago by causing her to go into exile and prostitution. She promises to give the residents of

Colobane a trillion dollars in exchange for Draman’s death. From greed, the townspeople

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implicitly betray Draman by buying expensive foreign items on credit, awaiting his inevitable

demise.

Like Yeelen, though the characters in Hyenas exhibit psychological depth, the characters

are allegories for different collective attitudes within society. The social and political message

conveyed by these allegories is that foreign institutions and capital will corrupt Africans and

leave them in a state of dependency, and that this destructive process is treacherously quiet rather

than violently explicit. The final scene of Draman’s death dramatizes this process. An indistinct

mob of townsmen gathers around Draman until his face is almost completely hidden, as they

prepare to slowly smother him. A cut to the people’s feet emphasizes their indistinct

homogeneity. From an aerial view we see the mob slowly converge and disperse, with Draman’s

death mysteriously accomplished without blood or violence. The viewer cannot point out any

specific individual that is responsible for Draman’s death, for each perpetrator hides

anonymously within the homogenous mob. The only thing left where Draman was standing is a

piece of cloth, implying that the townspeople have both literally and metaphorically consumed

Draman. Thus, global capitalism threatens to gradually infect African society, corrupting its

values, homogenizing its people, and addicting it to parasitic consumption.

The scrap of clothing left from Draman’s death recalls an earlier image of a hyena

holding a scrap in its mouth. The townsmen who kill Draman exhibit the negative qualities that

Mambety associates with hyenas. Hiding within the crowd, they are insidious and cowardly

rather than fierce and forthright. While hyenas benefit from their victim’s death, they never

actually kill the victim themselves, preferring to follow the sick animal until it dies. Throughout

the whole movie, both the townspeople and the viewers are waiting for Draman to die, since

Colobane already betrayed him from the beginning. The shot of the townsmen’s numerous feet,

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in which we cannot examine their countenance or their identity, emphasizes their herdlike

cowardice and refusal to face their own guilt.

Close-up shots of feet are also prominent in the very beginning of the film. The first

image consists of numerous elephant feet walking on parched earth, followed by a shot that

shows the elephants’ entire bodies. Next, we see a herd of ragged townsmen, and then a cut to

the townsmen’s feet, walking along the same parched ground. Both the elephants and the

townspeople are suffering from a drought. The elephants appear again at the end of the film, but

a bulldozer replaces their image, with skyscrapers in the visual background and airplanes in the

aural background. Here, industrial society razes the habitat of the elephants.

The elephants are associated with the people of Colobane in the beginning of the film

because, allegorically, the elephants symbolize the traditional aspect of the Colobane people

while the hyenas represent the opposing, modernizing aspect. Just as the drought threatens to

bring death to the elephants, poverty makes the people of Colobane especially vulnerable to

greed, their “hyena” characteristic. The Colobane mayor’s initial response to Linguére’s

proposal was, “The drought will never turn us into savages,” but it turns out that the drought kills

the elephant side of Colobane to profit the scavenging hyena side.

This internal battle within each African takes place most explicitly in the school

headmaster. Initially, he lambastes the effect of Linguére’s money on the town of Colobane. But

in a deranged in drunken state, he admits that the money “burns” at his heart, and finally buys a

bottle of expensive liquor on credit. He declares that “the reign of hyenas has begun,” indicating

that his elephant aspect has succumbed to the passive violence of the hyenas. In this multi-

faceted allegory, the hyena gains ascendancy of the elephant aspect of each Colobane individual,

and each Colobane individual behaves like a hyena by scavenging off Draman’s death.

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However, Hyenas does not simply draw a strict dichotomy between African morality and

Western greed, as it is far more than a monologically nostalgic exaltation of traditional Africa.

After all, Draman is not a pure and innocent African victim of Linguére’s Western capitalism, for

he is guilty of ruining Linguére’s life. The scene of the townspeople at the beach visually

portrays these contradictions. Everyone is dressed in white, the buildings are white, and the only

people dressed in color are the headmaster and the doctor. The camera follows their movements

as they move down the screen while most people flock up the screen. The headmaster and

doctor approach Linguére in an attempt to save Colobane. Here, we can see that the defenders of

the African town’s values maintain their individuality. They retain color in a swarm of

whiteness, and are willing to move against the tide of people. However, both the headmaster and

doctor received a Western education and are dressed in suits rather than the local garb of the

other townspeople of the scene. Ironically, those who seek to defend Colobane from Linguére’s

Western influences are the most Westernized themselves.

In fact, the production of Hyenas itself illustrates such contradictions. Though Mambety

makes jabs at the World Bank and its lending to African nations, he produced the film with the

help of foreign aid from French government and cultural institutions. Hyenas’ tale comes from a

Swiss play. “The precision of the translation from play to film and from Switzerland to the

Gambia suggests an implicit capitalist universalism- money corrupts in much the same way

everywhere” (Harrow, 216). Thus, Mambety is not so much eschewing Western culture as he is

criticizing the capitalism that the West may bring with it and the effects of its forceful infiltration

into African culture. Though the influx of money may affect cultures everywhere in negative

ways, the advent of consumerism is an especially relevant issue for the developing countries of

Africa.

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The carnival scene in Hyenas illustrates the alluring attraction of consumerism.

Linguére’s money temporarily transforms an African town into a Western amusement park. As a

man on stage with a microphone lists the merits of glamorous new consumer items to the

women, others play on whirling mechanized amusement rides, while fireworks blot out the sky.

The scene cuts between one image and the next, faster and faster in accordance with the frenzied

pace of the carnival, until the screen is a blaze of gaudy lights and swirling machines. The noise

of the crowd, machines, and fireworks continues unabated. This visual and aural overload

depicts the global culture of excessive consumption that threatens Africa.

African audiences are attracted to the carnivalesque spectacles offered to them by

blockbuster Hollywood movies, fast-action Hong Kong kung-fu flicks, and Indian musical

melodramas. These types of films offer quick and easy pleasures that can be easily consumed, as

opposed to the more challenging didactic or allegorical films made by African filmmakers, which

take longer to digest. “African directors, in decolonizing Western images of Africa presented to

Africans, face the problem of Hollywood-hooked audiences and escapist entertainment-seeking

in their own countries” (Tomaselli, 32). The “escapist entertainment-seeking” in the out-of-place

carnival of Hyenas depicts a cultural condition that Mambety opposes.

Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Quartier Mozart takes a different stance by making use of the influx

of foreign images, thus initiating a new relationship with the West. Characters discuss Princess

Di, Denzel Washington, and Michael Jackson. Bekolo recognizes that Western cultural icons

have become universal cultural currency that now resonates with an African audience saturated

in Western images. He reappropriates these images to address Africa.

Despite its urban tone, Quartier Mozart retains features in common with Yeelen and

Hyenas. The characters have mythical names, so they represent archetypes used by Bekolo to

address the social issue of sexual politics. Magic is present in this film, though it is set in a

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modern city. This merger of magic and modernism occurs when Queen of the Hood enters a car

and emerges as a man (Russell, 117). The scene portrays not only the permeability of sexual

boundaries, but also of the boundaries between technology and magic, and traditionalism and

modernism.

The scene in which a group of boys sing an African rap involves a multiple crossing of

boundaries. This African rap song is based upon an American musical genre, yet its genre was

developed by America’s African diaspora. The different threads of culture, identity, and roots are

too interwoven to separate into separate, distinct categories. We see the interplay between

African culture and foreign cultures in Yeelen through its references to 2001: A Space Odyssey

and in Hyenas through its adaptation of the Swiss play. Yeelen deals with the universal issues of

knowledge, power, and corruption while Hyenas discusses the universal effects of money and

greed.

Each film uses these universal themes to address the particular issues relevant to Africa,

often making use of mythological characters and allegories to refer to larger social and political

issues. Yeelen revisits and redeems Africa’s past and its rituals from the distanced

anthropological portrayals made by the West. Hyenas confronts the present-day problem of

modernization and consumerism experienced by rural Africa. Quartier Mozart transfers African

magic into an urban setting, showing the resilience and relevance of older African traditions and

beliefs in the modern, industrial world. Thus, while these films draw from foreign discourses,

they also offer their own unique contributions to world cinema, perpetuating the constant

interplay between the universal and the particular.

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WORKS CITED

Andrew, Dudley. “Roots of the Nomadic.”

Diawara, Manthia. African Cinema. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press,
1992.

Diawara, Manthia. “Souleymane Cisse’s Light on Africa.” Black Film Review, Vol. 4, No. 4,
Fall 1988.

Harrow, Kenneth W. African Cinema: Postcolonial and Feminist Readings. Trenton, NJ: Africa
World Press, 1999.

Russell, Sharon A. Guide to African Cinema. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Tomaselli, Keyan G., Arnold Shepperson, and Maureen Eke. Research in African Literatures.

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in the beginning, we are placed in the midst of secrets with no dialogue to contextualize or explain it.
slow rising of the sun. chicken impaled on a pole sets on fire. sun continues rising (time, sun
symbolizing the passage of time). the camera follows young boy brings goat and ties it to a seated
wooden statue. a wooden board leans against the statue. The boy leaves and we have a brief tableau of
the statue, board, and goat. the camera then cuts to the tip of the wooden board, where we see an
embedded crystal. There is a slow pan down the wooden board, where we get to see the geometrical
patterns made by its etchings and carvings. The camera then pans across and comes to rests on a view of
the statue’s head, where an identical crystal is embedded. then cut to a staff with two crystals embedded
on either side of it, then a cut to a chicken impaled on the tip of the staff, its blood flowing down. slow
pan down to the two crystals. cut to soma’s ritual with the termite hill and sacrificial chicken and pole.

• SHOOTING OF YEELEN:
• “The films are characterized by long takes with natural sounds. Unlike conventional film language,
which uses close-ups to dramatize a narrative moment, the close-ups in these films serve to inscribe
the beauty of the characters and their tradition… Others, on the contrary, have criticized the films for
being nostalgic and exotic” (160).
• “Cissé finds it necessary to use beautiful images to counter the stereotypical images of Africa
constructed by Hollywood and Western history… Yeelen defines its own language by deemphasizing
the psychologically based shot/reverse shot and close ups of Western cinema, and by valorizing long
shots and long takes” (165).
• every item is imbued with cultural significance, oftentimes a very esoteric significance which most
Western viewers cannot hope to understand (access is difficult), that reaches beyond the here-and-now
(present-at-hand?) fetishization of rituals, sacred objects, and people
• “In the scene in which Nianankoro and Attou are seen bathing, water symbolizes purity and
fecundity… Africa’s notion of morality maintaining the human body as a sacred entity” (Ukadike,
261). way the body is shot- its relation to the way fetishes/objects are shot- makes us question
idolatry/religion distinction. nudity presented in “a wholesome, nonsensational way” (Ukadike, 261).
• ritual shooting of the fetish is sensual and intimate, not just a distanced curiousity.

Thus, he challenges the idea that modernity can only be achieved through westernization, instead
positing that the hope for Africa’s future lies in its past.

• *transition from 2001* Cisse: My objective is to erase from people’s mind the disdain that they have
for Black people and their culture. Let’s take for example… the history of America… Black people
have hleped America to develop itself culturally. Part of the reason Amreica dominates the world
culturally is due to Black culture… We in Africa are aware of this; and we know that our culture can
contribute to the development of universal culture” (Diawara, 16).

• YEELEN’S LARGER COSMIC/SOCIAL ALLEGORIES


• ---public/private of occult power usage also mirrors political power outcomes—
• --at waterfall, keepers of sacred bongo spring are courteous, dignified, openly reveal methods of
stimulating rain without concern for keeping knowledge secret or concerned with own prestige an

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dower. Are stewards of communal welfare rather than exploiters of occult power, exemplify what
leadership should be
• Kolonkolanni a magic pylon “to expose and punish thieves, traitors, and perjurers.” rod of justice used
injustly“judicial divining rod” – instrument of justice used injustly
• the young son is half-Peul
• Nianancoro uses his power ot help others. virtuous Peul king and Dogon keepers- they are gracious
and giving. The keepers “openly reveal their methods of stiumulating rain from the clouds without
concern for etiher keeping their knowledge secret or augmenting their own prestige and power” (136).
Uncle Djigui Diarra was blinded when he suggested that the Komo secrets be hsared for the benefit of
all people. Cinema is now sharing the Komo secrets, and at the end, we seeing a blinding flash of
apocalyptic light. *transition to griot*

• taken from the oral tradition of the Mande population of West Africa, presentday Mali
• “favoring short vignette over lengthy narrative development” (Ukadike, 259)
• -the film itself makes public all these secret rituals- the viewer is empowered? --became magician—
showed people walking backwards
• light as symbol for knowledge----when released, creates and destroys. perfect for the film medium in
that images are completely produced by some usage of light. --power of knowledge to transform, the
way fire transforms matter from one form to another. “Heat makes the fire and the two worlds (earth
and sky) exist through light.”
• Cisse functions as griot by keeping past alive. also griot-like in that he is aware of his audience,
fashions the old oral tale directly addressing present political issues of the time

• Base of power for komo is Kore: universal, occult source of knowlecge that meditates between the
spiritual and material realms.

• Yeelen very successful in the West, got the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize in the year of its release

• just as poverty induced Draman to give up love with Linguére to marry a rich woman.
the people try to make Draman commit suicide. deterministic- ineveitable development- the headmaster
would like to halt it but it’s impossible,

African films get little screentime within Africa- frequent mostly the international film festivals.

• “Do filmmakers, like the people of Colobane, fool themsevles into thinking that what the producer
wants is what they had planned all along?” (Harrow, 218)
• Japanese woman- emblem of capitalist modernity- handcuffs, walkie talkie, Herald Tribune
• SONY- image of an image- image of our image of Africa- tense with contradiction. Is Colobane like
the Western viewer now? fetishizing Africa’s poverty?

• “combines modern technqiues such as driect address to the camera- which are assocated with modern
Amreican filmmmakers like Spike Lee- with folklore from the oral tradition” (Russell, 115)

• MISC
• “inserts shots of vultures into the preparations” for Linguére. “the town council meets in the rubble of
a building called the Hyena Hole” vultures and sacrificed bull. match cuts.
• final image of the son descending, quick drumming music of anticipation

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• “This orality is further emphasized in that the storyline is advanced through a variety of different
characters- as opposed to the single meta-narrator of conventional First Cinema” (Tomaselli, 27)

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