Yeelen Review

Yeelen DVD
AKA: Brightness, Light
, La Lumiere
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure/Drama
Year Released: 1987
Distributor: Kino Video

Origin: Mali/Burkina Faso/France/Germany

Running Time: 105 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+

Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Ota-Itenkhole, Waati, Finye

Notes: N/A
Fun Facts:

-Yeelen is created by Souleymane Cisse who would also direct Waati, Den Muso, and Tell Me Who You Are.

-This film won the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize and the Sutherland Trophy.

-Yeelen uses two languages of dialogue: Bambara and Fula.

-Two people involved in this film are related by royal bloodline. Balla Moussa Keita plays the Fula King and Rouma Boll while Salif Keita handled the music. Both of them are descendants of the Keita dynasty who’s most famous king is Sundiata Keita who existed centuries ago.

I did it. I finally did it. As of this review, I completed my geography goal of 2019. YES! What was the country that helped me achieve this goal in particular? It would be none other than the African nation of Mali. It took a long time to find some films from that country, but I found out that there was a Malian director by the name of Souleymane Cisse. I didn’t know he was Malian until I did a Google search once I put some of his films in my Netflix DVD queue. I loaded up whatever was part of his filmography and randomly chose one of his films from the 80s first. This would also be a first for me when it comes to reviewing movies on Iridium Eye. This film is the first African fantasy film I’ve watched and the story takes place in precolonial times.

Is this film a light of sorts for my cinematic critique endeavors?

Yeelen takes place in the Mali empire approximately in the thirteenth century. There is a group of people called the Komo who are natural mages in Mali, but the head patriarch Soma only uses magic for his own gratification and vanity. What makes this worse is that he receives a vision of his son Nianankoro killing him, so he vows to slaughter his own flesh and blood. Nianankoro is aided by his mom who has a premonition that he will break the family’s curse. He takes his father’s enchanted items including the Kore Wing for protection. A hyena spirit even tells him that he will be the catalyst to end a curse. Nianankoro has to find his uncle (his father’s twin brother) who would be willing to help him. In the meantime, he travels across Mali in different villages to find answers, but his murderous father is pursuing him.

While I’ve seen other films with similar elements or plot points, I will say that everything was quite original here. A precolonial Afro-Fantasy setting was unique in of itself when the fantasy genre is either dominated by European settings/aesthetics or the occasional Asian locale (mainly in anime and wuxia), but an African setting hundred of years ago is just unheard of. The clothing, magic, and aesthetics could have only come from the continent. Besides the backdrop, there were some original things going for Yeelen that don’t have much to do with the environment. The brief scene with the hyena prophecy was mind-blowing because that was the first time seeing that animal shown who ISN’T an antagonist. Hopefully, I shouldn’t explain why this is an anti-cliche in itself and this is coming from someone who previously reviewed a certain 60s anime that involved hyena henchman a couple of years ago. Also, there’s an uncle who isn’t some useless comic relief character or a villain. While Djigui doesn’t show up until the third act, he plays a major role in the story and in the character development for Niankoro and Attou. The story is actually easy to follow, but it does get abstract near the end. It’s experimental enough to have a legitimate amount of artistic integrity, but not abstract enough to lose viewers. The magic presented has no CGI and rarely uses special effects, so there’s a magical realism effect to it like if Ousmane Sembene or Jafar Panahi directed a fantasy (Yes, film buffs. I know it’s weird to imagine it that way.) with the naturalistic setting without being gaudy. Just don’t expect it to be the same as Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings though. Nianankoro was a likable enough hero. While he’s stoic a good portion of the time, he does have some self-doubt from time to time, gives into temptation in a major plot point, and eventually gets a bit of confidence like how he makes a little smirk when confronting his dad. That was a nice touch and the presentation was quite fascinating with how well a fantasy movie can be without major effects most of the time.

Yeelen does get dimmed from time to time. The music is variable. Some of it is really good, but I found the other half to be starkly anachronistic and too bizarre. Some of the background characters just disappear like the other uncle that briefly shows up, but is never seen again, Nianankoro’s mom, and other random people who aren’t seen like some random cameos than characters with real agency. I thought some of the dialogue was awkward. The biggest case is when a certain character who will remain nameless to avoid spoilers says “My penis betrayed me”. I can’t make up a line like that even if it made sense in context of the movie. I was also not a fan of the nudity that happened in the film. It was overdone and some of it got tasteless. I wish they wouldn’t have resorted to that in multiple scenes in the movie. Yeelen worked without using fancy special effects, but one part of the ending got weird with the b-roll footage in the final fight scene. I thought it was bizarre and a bit incongruous with the rest of the footage even though the ending still made sense.

This fantasy film was certainly a creative watch which was a nice trip. It was certainly atypical in the fantasy genre which I do applaud and not just because it’s an African film made by someone directly from the continent. There was a good mix of straightforward and abstract elements to keep things fresh. The realistic approach in this genre was handled well most of the time. I do wish that they would have either eliminated most of the secondary characters or given them more agencies in the film. Some of the dialogue could have been cleaned up and toned down most of the nudity. Yeelen has original things going for it and I did think it was a good film. A few tweaks here and there would’ve made this an instant masterpiece.

Adjustable Rating System:

Add 1-2 points if you like African fantasy stories.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want your fantasy to have more special effects.

-Nianankoro was a good leading hero
-Highly original take on fantasy
-The use of magical realism was effective


-Some supporting characters were pointless
-Dialogue issues
-Inconsistent soundtrack

Final Score: 7/10 points

Content Warning: Yeelen should be fine for teens and older. There are ritual sacrifices including a close-up of a burning chicken and African-based magic, so some people would be concerned about the usage of runic arts. There is a sex scene and infidelity. Nudity is the worst issue with both male and female parts are shown.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Yeelen is property of Souleymane Cisse and Kino Video. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of Kino Video.

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