The director Souleymane Cissé, born in Mali and who grew up in Dakar, will receive the Carrosse d'Or, which rewards the pioneers of cinema, at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17.
Souleymane Cissé is widely recognized as one of the greatest African filmmakers of all time, and the Cannes Film Festival, the most prestigious in the world, agrees. The director of Malian origin has been appointed laureate of the 2023 Golden Coach. David Murphy, critic and specialist du african cinema and the work of Cissé, explained to us why his films are so important, in particular his classic Yeelen.
Who is Souleymane Cissé?
Cissé is a famous Malian director who has been making films since the early 1970s. He was born in Bamako in 1940, but his childhood was spent in Dakar, Senegal, then a neighboring colony of the French empire in West Africa. the West. His father had settled there for his job before returning to Mali after theindependence in 1960. It was in Dakar that he became passionate about cinema and, from 1963 to 1969, he trained as a director in Moscow, Russia, under the supervision of the great Soviet director Mark Donskoy (with whom the legendary Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene had studied a few years earlier).
Cissé only realized nine movies in 50 years (and only three since the beginning of this century). It must be said that it has never been easy to make a career as a director in Africa (at least outside the Nigerian video industry Nollywood).
Cissé's reputation is largely based on the quality of the four films he made during the most prolific period of his career, between 1975 and 1987, which culminated with the release of Yeelen (The Light), who won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. It was the first African film to receive such critical acclaim at a festival renowned for its celebration of pioneering new directions in filmmaking.
What is its place in the history of African cinema?
Yeelen has been hailed by critics not only as a pivotal moment for African cinema on the international stage, but also as the embodiment of a new form of African cinematographic practice rooted in the oral storytelling traditions and spirituality of East Africa. 'West.
A beautifully directed film, Yeelen tells a mythical and highly symbolic story that pits a rebellious son against his tyrannical father. The film takes place at an indeterminate moment in pre-colonial Africa.
This new cinematic style stood in contrast to the social realism that many critics saw as the main characteristic of Francophone West African cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. (Sembène's films are generally cited as the most successful examples of this type of work). Cissé himself had been praised for the social and politically engaged realism of his first films, the Den Muso (The Young Girl) of 1975 and the baara (The Work) of 1978.
With Yeelen, he is now depicts by many critics as a director who made the “transition” from social realism to a more symbolic, more mystical and therefore more “authentically” African form of cinema.
Yeelen is often cited alongside other films that depict a rural Africa untouched by Western colonial presence, particularly Wend Kuuni (1982) et yaaba (1989) Burkinabe directorsGaston Kabore et Idrissa Ouedraogo.
These films began to be categorized by some critics as films that rejected modernity and the socialist principles of the decades following independence. They are considered to have turned their backs on Western ideas and aesthetics and sought inspiration in an authentic, rural and pre-colonial Africa.
As a film critic, I have no never really accepted the various premises underlying these arguments.
What is your take on this story?
First of all, social realism was never the only dominant aesthetic of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, it was not even the dominant aesthetic of Sembène's work, to which she was most closely associated with critics. Second, although each of Cissé's early films – Den Muso, Baara and Finye (Wind) – may in part be located in a naturalistic and realistic register, they all present complex and rather opaque symbolic sequences.
Cissé lays out his artistic convictions in the Cambodian director's magnificent 1991 documentary Rithy Pahn, Souleymane Cissé. He describes the inspiration for his films as an almost dreamlike and visionary process, but firmly rooted in reality. In Finyé, water and wind play this symbolic role in what remains a very political film that denounces the military dictatorship.
I've never been sold on the idea that a specific mode of cinematic storytelling or type of storytelling (rural versus urban, for example) can tap into an “authentic” African identity or culture.
But I fully understand why the quest for authenticity emerged in the 1980s. Dreams of independence had turned into neocolonial nightmares across much of the continent. The directors clearly wanted to express elements of African life that were not considered beholden to the culture of the former colonial powers.
Why is this price important?
This prize is awarded by the French Association of Directors to reward a filmmaker for the pioneering qualities of his work and the audacity of his cinematographic vision. Previous winners include famous Western directors, including Martin Scorecese et Jane campion, but also Cissé's cinematic hero, Sembene.
This is an important and deserved reward. Cissé's creativity may have waned in his later years, but the awarding of the Carrosse d'Or rightly celebrates a director who, for much of the 1970s and 1980s, was one of the filmmakers the most inventive, not only in Africa, but all over the world. Hopefully this award will inspire more moviegoers to check out his classic films.