Music, Magic, and the Mythic: The Dynamics of Visual and Aural Discourse in Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen

Alexander Fisher

Abstract


The 1980s saw a wave of African films that aimed to represent, on both local and international screens, a sophisticated pre-colonial Africa, representing ancient myths and traditions while simultaneously debunking notions of the continent as primitive. Toward this aim the films inscribed the conventions of oral performance within their visual styles, denying spectator identification with the protagonists and emphasising the presence of the narrator. However, some critics argued that these films exoticised Africa, while their use of oral performance’s distancing effect echoed the ‘scientific’ distance structured by the ethnographic film, in which African societies were represented as ‘the other’.

Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen exemplifies this tension, transposing into cinematic form oral storytelling techniques in the depiction of a power struggle within the covert cult of the komo, a Bambara initiation society unfamiliar to most non-Bambara viewers. This paper demonstrates how the film negotiates this tension via music, which interpellates the international spectator by eliciting a greater identification with the protagonists than that determined at a visual level, while encoding a verisimilitude to rituals that may otherwise be read as the superstitious practices of ‘the other’. In this way, music and image in Yeelen operate as parallel, though often overlapping, discourses, bridging the gap between the film’s culturally specific narrative and formal components, and its international spectators.


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References


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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5195/cinej.2012.49

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