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


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


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


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


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,


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 multifaceted 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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.

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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 12

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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

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• 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 13

“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)