Many centuries ago in the West African land of Mali, there was great store held by magic and those who could perform it, but even among these sorcerers there was a conflict. In this case, it was familial, for Niankoro (Issiaka Kane) had taken the secrets of his father Soma (Niamanto Sanogo) to use as he saw fit, leaving him victim to the wrath of his parent. He had fled across the desert with his mother, but she told him eventually she was not going to follow him anymore, and that he should track down his uncle for he was the one man who could help him overcome Soma's overwhelming vengeance...
Yeelen, meaning Brightness, was the highest profile work of one of Africa's most celebrated directors Souleymane Cissé: it certainly impressed the jury at Cannes in its year, walking away with a prize. But that does not necessarily mean the film is a household word, for most in the West at least would never have heard of it, leaving it stuck with a minority who champion its visual qualities and its deep meanings, and the rest who would wouldn't be bothered one way or the other. Even among those who did watch it there were grumblings that Cissé's efforts here had far too little relevance to Africa as it was in modern times, and its snail's pace was not conducive to a vital cinematic experience.
Of course, you simply had to adjust to Yeelen's progression through its scenes of arcane talk and shots laden with profundity, should you be on the same wavelength, which admittedly was not going to be the case with everyone because the mythology of Mali was not accessible to all who might see this film. Therefore it was difficult to perceive if Cissé was doing the stories justice when with his cast of nonprofessionals (many of whom never acted in any other movie) spacily moving through the obscure narrative you could be forgiven for getting lost at various points. Yet really, it wasn't half as hard to follow as its detractors would have you believe, and if you were of a mind to tune into its rhythms it could pay dividends.
If anything, it was refreshing to see something uniquely African, and you genuinely had a feel of being in this landscape, so meticulously pored over by Cissé's camera was it that the heat of the desert was almost palpable. Our hero underwent a quest not unlike those of many a character from cultures all over the world, and the fact that this included the supernatural was not so alien to everyone watching as the thought of engaging with these folk tales might have been presumed to be. The story was steeped in ritual it was true, some of it involving animal sacrifice so beware animal lovers, and at one point an albino is set up to be put to death as well (an actual problem even in modern Africa where such people are vicitimised terribly), but for the purposes of fiction you could see where this was going.
Which was a confrontation between father and son, an age old plot which saw the elder reluctant to give up his power to his offspring, and willing to destroy him utterly in the process. Before that, Niankoro traversed the land and met with various tribes, some more hostile than others, and found himself a partner in Attu (Aoua Sangare), who he was supposed to be curing of a barren womb, she being the youngest wife of a king he encounters, and when he goes off with her at the king's request they end up getting Attu pregnant, so the circle of life continues. And so also the king loses a wife, so hard luck, mate. Although that mystical atmosphere is sustained from first frame to last, it was the finale which stuck in many viewer's minds, as it grew practically cosmic in its face off between two powerful proponents of magic, and did not end in quite the way you might have anticipated. Although the budget was low, Cissé was an innovator in his means, and if you could very well end this with a blank stare, others might think, yeah, I get it. Music by Salif Keita and Michel Portal.