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Directors in Focus
Sympathetic Magic: The Cinema of Souleymane Cisse


The Harvard Film Archive is honored to welcome Souleymane Cissé, this year’s recipient of the fifth annual Genevieve McMillan and Reba Stewart Fellowship for Distinguished Filmmaking. One of Africa’s leading directors, Cissé has crafted a body of films that combine visual elegance with Marxist ideology and allegorical storytelling. Born in 1940, Cissé began his film career as a projectionist and photographer in Mali. After studying cinema in the Soviet Union for seven years, he returned to Mali, where he cut his teeth making newsreels and documentaries. His first fiction film, Cinq Jours d’une vie (Five Days in a Life, 1972), launched his career and gained critical attention for the burgeoning African film movement. Three years later, Cissé directed the first feature film in his native language of Bambara, The Girl, only to have the film banned by authorities. His masterpiece, hailed by Film Comment as “the best African film ever made,” would come a decade and a half later with Yeelen (Brightness, 1987). Drawing on traditional indigenous lifestyles and Malian folklore, Cissé attempts to explore conflicts in Mali society, particularly the conflicts that emerge between the desire for change and the need to preserve tradition.

Harvard Film Archive wishes to thank Mantia Diawara, Professor of Africana Studies at New York University, for his assistance with the arrangements for this program.


Director Souleymane Cissé in Person
November 16 (Friday) 7 pm
November 17 (Saturday) 9:30 pm

Barra

Directed by Souleymane Cissé
Mali 1976–77, 35mm, color, 90 min.
With Omou Diarra, Balle Moussa Keita, Ismaila Sarr
Bambara with English subtitles

In this early work, Cissé focuses on a young innocent who has left the countryside for the city and become caught in the middle of social conflict. Befriended by the manager of a textile factory, he watches as his mentor is caught between the demands of a cruel owner and the needs of the much-abused workers he oversees. Having spent years studying Marxist ideology in Moscow, Cissé was the first African director to directly confront and criticize the condition of workers in the city. Yet the social constructs and characters he develops are presented with a clarity unencumbered by the typical moralizing of socialist films.

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Director Souleymane Cissé in Person November 16
November 16 (Friday) 9:15 pm
November 19 (Monday) 9 pm 

Finye (The Wind)

Directed by Souleymane Cissé
Mali 1981, 35mm, color, 100 min.
Bambara with English subtitles

Set in a small village community in contemporary Africa, Finye centers on a love affair between an army commander’s daughter and the grandson of a tribal chief. A spirited, sympathetic portrait of a society in transition, the film defines the director’s central philosophical premise: that the ethnographic approach or seemingly modern view of African culture is no more valid that the traditional metaphysical view. Myth and symbolism maintain an important role in Cissé’s films, where the frontier between realism and metaphor constantly shift. Here, he employs these multiple perspectives to present an intriguing study of a culture that is both exotic and unexpectedly familiar.

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Director Souleymane Cissé in Person
November 17 (Saturday) 7 pm

Yeelen (Brightness)

Directed by Souleymane Cissé 
Burkina Faso/France 1987, 35mm, color, 105 min. 
With Issiaka Kane, Aoua Sangare, Niamanto Sanogo 
Bambara and French with English subtitles

Set in an indeterminate period among the Bambara people of director Cissé’s Mali homeland, in central northwest Africa, Yeelen focuses on a spiritual battle waged between a father and a son. Drawing his tale from the oral traditions of the Bambara, Cissé has fashioned an innovative narrative style that captures his people’s belief in time “as circular, not linear, always returning to that initial ‘brightness’ which creates the world.” While Yeelen is a local drama with Oedipal overtones and elements of the coming of-age story, its theme of social responsibility is timelessly universal. It has been called “the most beautifully photographed African film ever.”


Director Souleymane Cissé in Person
November 18 (Sunday) 7 pm

Waati

Directed by Souleymane Cissé
France/Mali 1995, 35mm, color, 140 min.
With Sidi Yaya Cissé, Mariame Amerou, Mohamed Dicko
French with English subtitles

At the beginning of this political allegory about apartheid, a South African grandmother tells a story of how humans and animals once fought for control of the earth. From this tribal legend, Waati segues to the modern day story of Nandi, a young girl who, after losing her family, revolts against the oppressive rule of the white regime, flees across the continent, and begins her studies at the university. Waati employs the vastly ambitious structures of Cissé’s other films as it engages the multiple cultures and countries of contemporary Africa, each with its own history, language, and political and social context. 

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