POSTCOLONIAL PRECOLONIALISM IN CONTEMPORARY WEST AFRICAN CINEMA: YEELEN
Janis L. Pallister
"Is there any place where there are no flies and no Europeans?"
Kebebe in Haile Gerimas Harvest 3000 Years
Cinematic expression of the sequelae associated with West African colonial praxis is highly diversified, but almost always trenchantly critical either of the oppressor nation or of the reactions of some class level of the particular African society to the language and culture of the former colonial power, here referring either to France or to Belgium. Not so, of course, films such as Out of Africa, films that have handed us a new mythology, of colonialist stamp, with images entailing the drift and movement of huge, Pleistocene animals pursued by the great white hunter, or with paternalistic colonial scenes where the white mistress or the master in safari shirt and khaki walking shorts (pith helmet on head) trains, befriends, and heals the sicknesses and wounds of unskilled, mindless Africans, or with vistas of space and scale hitherto not reckoned with, either by colonized or colonist...(these latter panning for "gold"). But African cinema, made by indigenous African film makers, has for obvious reasons historically focussed on the true evils of colonialism and its aftermaththe work of Sembne Ousmane being a case in point. This thematic drift achieved a new dimension when Souleymane Cisss 1987 film entitled Yeelen (The Light, or Brightness) revealed an ideological trend toward what I will call a postcolonial precolonialism. Here we have the aridity of the desert, and no animals, other than the horse, an occasional sacrificial goat or chicken, and herds of cattle tended by young boys. At intervals we hear a rooster crow, setting the time and fixing a village atmosphere. Birds can be heard singing in the forest scenes; a dog is conjured. (Toward the end of the film images of a buffalo and a lion occur.) The mythology here is African to the core.
Yeelen has frequently been called a work comparable to science fiction and, in an unneeded effort to elevate it, has been compared to the story of Oedipus. This has occurred in a number of exposs of this "ravishingly beautiful" film, as Sheila Benson characterizes it. (She also suggests that it is one of the great experiences of world cinema.) Nevertheless, and in that its analogies with the Star Wars trilogy are multiple and compelling, Yeelen would be well served if the film were to be classified as a fantasy. Comparing the American and African products will, then, assist us in identifying the genre orientation from which Yeelen emanates.
But most importantlyand this will be the central point of my essaythe African film seeks to do the impossible: i.e., to picture a postco-lonial nation (Mali) in a cinematic form as if the colonial phenomenon had never occurred; to transport the viewer backward through time, to a period in Classical Africa when African values, African culture, African spirituality and African languages prevailed. To do this, all evidence of the oppressor's superimposed language and lifestyle had to be suppressed to the maximum. This was not an easy feat in a country still influenced by French manners, as had been so ever since the arrival of the French in Mali in 1881-83. (It will be recalled that they colonized Mali from the vantage point of upper Senegal, which they had already conquered. Malian independence was gained in 1960.) For that matter, the film bears only a few signs of Islamic influence or presenceeven though the Arabs reached Africa by 639 A.D. Significantly, it was the Bambara who put up the strongest resistance to Islam.
In any case, the oft-repeated referral of Yeelen to ancient Western literatures as an argument for the film's validation is not pertinent to my concern, and will therefore not be adjudicated here. Nevertheless, the convergence of hero concepts from different cultures will be a subsumed concern, both for its intrinsic interest and for its tie to the essential ironies inherent in the aesthetic pleasure the Westerner derives from Yeelen.
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