Cissé, Souleymane

views updated May 23 2018

CISSÉ, Souleymane

Nationality: Malian. Born: Bamako, 21 April 1940; lived in Dakar during his adolescence until the Senegalese-Mali Federation broke up in 1960, at which point he moved back to Mali. Education: Obtained a three-month grant to study in the Soviet Union, 1961; received a scholarship to study film direction at the VGIK (State Institute of Cinema), Moscow, 1963–1969; made three short films as a student, L'homme et les idoles (1965), Sources d'inspiration (1966), andL'aspirant (1968) Career: Film director for SCINFOMA (Service Cinématographique du Ministère de l'Information du Mali), Mali, 1969–1972; with his direction of Cinq jours d'une vie (1972) he decided to work on his own projects; established the NFa Cissé, an annual award for artistic creation in Mali. 1991. Awards: Bronze prize, Carthage Film Festival (Tunisia), for Cinq jours d'une vie, 1972; Bronze prize, Carthage Film Festival, for Den Muso, 1974; Grand prize, Fespaco (Burkina Faso), Grand prize, Nantes Festival (France), Silver prize, Carthage Film Festival, for Baara, 1977; Gold prize, Carthage Film Festival, Grand prize, Fespaco (Burkina Faso), A Certain Regard section, Cannes Festival (France), for Finyé, 1982; Chevalier du Mérite National and Jury prize, Cannes Film Festival (France), for Yeelen, 1987; Gold medal, Congress of the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers, for entire works, 1996. Address: Sisé Filimu/Les Films Cissé, BP 1236, Bamako, Mali.

Films as Director:


Cinq jours d'une vie (+ sc, d, ph)


Den Muso (The Girl) (+ sc)


Baara (The Work) (+ sc)


Finyé (The Wind) (+ sc)


Yeelen (The Light) (+ sc)


Waati (The Time) (+ sc)

Other Films:


Degal à Dialloube (doc); Fête du Sanke (doc)


Dixième anniversaire de l'O.U.A. (doc)


Chanteurs traditionnels des îles Seychelles (doc)


By CISSÉ: articles—

"Vers un cinéma malien?," interview with G. Hennebelle, in Afrique-Asie (Paris), 14 May 1973.

"Refléter la trame du quotidien," in Le Monde Diplomatique (Paris), September 1978.

"La chronique de Souleymane Cissé," in Libération (Paris), 15–16 May 1982.

"Je suis à la recherche d'une voie personnelle et mon identité," interview with D.A.A. Sow and C. Hamalla, in Podium (Bamako), 30 June 1982.

"L'énergie éolienne de Cissé," interview with M. Cressole, in Libération (Paris), 20 April 1983.

"La conscience et l'espoir," interview with H. Guibert, in Le Monde (Paris), 21 April 1983.

"Souleymane Cissé, v'la l'bon vent," interview with P. Barrat, in LesNouvelles Littéraires (Paris), April-May 1983.

"Bourrasques au Mali," interview with C. Ruelle, in MagazineLittéraire (Paris), May 1983.

"Rencontre avec Cissé," in Calao (Abidjan), May-June 1983.

"Je crée en marchant," interview with D. Heymann, in Le Monde (Paris), 29–30 November 1987.

"L'Afrique dans la lumière," interview with C. Tesson, in Cahiersdu Cinéma (Paris), December 1987.

"Entretien avec Souleymane Cissé," interview with J. Binet and K. Touré, in Positif (Paris), December 1987.

"Souleymane Cissé, cinéaste malien," interview with J-F. Senga, in Présence Africaine (Paris), Winter 1987.

"L'Afrique dans la lumière," interview with C. Tesson, in Cahiersdu Cinéma (Paris), December 1987.

"Vers les sources de la lumière," interview with P. Elhelm and C. Waldmann, in Cinergie (Paris), August 1988.

"Le cinéma africain est mal parti," interview with J-J. Louarn, in Faim et Développement (Paris), March 1990.

"Le Chant de Soma," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1991.

"Entretien avec Cissé," interview with J-M. Lalanne and F. Strauss, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1995.

"Souleymane Cissé, l'Africain pluriel," interview with D. Heymann, in Le Monde (Paris), 8 June 1995.

"We Make Films. . . but We Do Not Exist," interview with H. Goutier, in The Courier (Brussels), November-December 1996.

On CISSÉ: books—

Vieyra, Paulin S., Le cinéma africain, des origines à 1973, Paris, 1975.

Guy, Hennebelle, editor, Cinéma d'Afrique Noire, in Cinémaction, Paris, 1979.

Bachy, Victor, Le cinéma au Mali, Brussels, 1983.

C.E.S.C.A., editor, Camera Nigra, Le Discours du cinéma africain, Brussels, 1984.

Haffner, Pierre, Le Cinéma et l'imaginaire en Afrique noire, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Paris, 1986.

Armes, Roy, Third World Filmmaking and the West, Berkeley, 1987.

Boughedir, Ferid, editor, Les cinémas noirs d'Afrique, in Cinémaction, Brussels, 1982.

Haffner, Pierre, Kino in Schwarzafrica, in Revue du CICIM, Munich, 1989.

Larouche, Michel, editor, Films d'Afrique, Montreal, 1991.

Armes, Roy, and Lizbeth Malkmus, Arab and African Filmmaking, London, 1991.

Diawara, Manthia, African Cinema, Bloomington, 1992.

Ukadike, Frank N., Black African Cinema, Berkeley, 1994.

Fepaci, editor, Africa and the Centenary of Cinema, Paris, 1995.

Ukadike, Frank N., editor, New Discourses of African Cinema, Iowa City, 1995.

Bakari, Imruh, and Mbye Cham, editors, African Experiences ofCinema, London, 1996.

Gutberlet, Marie-Hélène, and Hans-Peter Metzler, editors, Afrikanisches Kino, Bad Honnef, 1997.

Lelievre, Samuel, Le cinéma paradoxal de Souleymane Cissé, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Strasbourg, 1999.

On CISSÉ: articles—

Tesson, Charles, "Le cinéma dans sa diversité," in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), July-August 1982.

Bassan, Raphael, "Le vent de l'esprit souffle sur le Mali," in Afrique-Asie (Paris), 31 January 1983.

Benabdessadok, Cherifa, "Baara," in Afrique-Asie (Paris), 3 December 1984.

Waintrop, Edouard, "Souleymane Cissé, les années-lumière," in Libération (Paris), 6 March 1987.

Daney, Serge, "Cissé très bien, qu'on se le dise," in Libération (Paris), 9–10 May 1987.

Heymann, Danielle, "Dans la lumière de Yeelen," in Le Monde (Paris), 29–30 November 1987.

Binet, Jacques, "Oedipus Negro," in Positif (Paris), December 1987.

De Baecque, Antoine, "Cela s'appelle l'aurore," in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), December 1987.

Villetard, Xavier, "Toute la lumière," in Libération (Paris), 2 December 1987.

Maïga, Mahmoud-Alpha, "Question d'accent," in Africa International (Paris), October 1990.

Gili, Jean A., "Waati, le continent retrouvé," in Positif (Paris), June 1995.

Lalanne, Jean-Marc, "Terre et mère," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1995.

Ahounou, Brice, "Le temps de Nandi," in Unir Cinema (Paris), July 1995.

Haffner, Pierre, "Ni modèle, ni école, ni tradition," in La Pensée (Paris), April-June, 1996.

On CISSÉ film—

Panh, Rithy, Souleymane Cissé (videocassette), 1991

* * *

Souleymane Cissé was the most recognized African filmmaker of the twentieth century. A participant in a general movement toward social realism in African cinema, Cissé was the first African to win a major prize at the Cannes Film Festival. While the success of both Finyé and Yeelen at the Cannes Film Festival garnered Cissé acclaim and increased attention for African cinema, Cissé has spent his career filming African subjects. Such concentration requires a special devotion because Africa is prone to economic and social precariousness. But after studying in Moscow, Cissé returned to his home land to perfect his craft. In doing so he has contributed significantly to the development of social realism in African cinema.

Cissé used his creative skills to tell stories of everyday Africans. While working at the SCINFOMA he made more than thirty newsreels and documentary films that examined different African societies. His projects carefully depicted the cultural heritage and typical lives of Malian and other African people. Using the very limited technical means provided by the government for which he was still working at that time, Cissé created Cinq jours d'une vie, a short movie relating the disappointments of an unemployed young man from Mali in 1972. Cissé's realistic style garnered Cinq jours d'une vie considerable attention at the Carthage Festival. Buoyed by the success of the film, Cissé formed his own company, Les Films Cissé, to produce his own films without government support.

Den Muso is both Cissé's first feature movie and the first film in Bambara language in African cinema. This movie deals with the suicide of Ténin, a deaf-mute urban Muslim young woman who is rejected by her family when she bears the child of one of her father's employees. Though the story sadly relates the story of Ténin it also comments on the value of social classes in modern society. Highlighting the moral conflicts of adhering to traditional values in contemporary society, Cissé accounts for the condition of the modern Malian woman.

The first great African movie dealing with the proletarian class, Baara is the most Marxist of Cissé's movies, both in its liberal form and its topics. The film grapples with the greed and corruption of the business elite and highlights the emerging social awareness of workers and women. In the film, Balla Traoré, a young engineer newly graduated in Europe, decries the economic exploitation in the textile factory he supervises and the corruption of his manager who will eventually have him murdered.

Finyé is one of the finest and densest movies made on the African continent. Centered around a love affair between two university students with very different backgrounds one father is a traditional chief and the other is a military governor the film tackles the friction between tradition and modernity in African society. In the film, the students join a mass protest against the falsification of exam results and are later supported by the chief who renounces his powers and allies himself with the youth. Meanwhile the military governor, whose authoritarianism bears some similarities to Moussa Traoré's politics when he ruled Mali from 1968 to 1991, remains firm in his defense of the government. In the end, Cissé succeeds in illustrating the power of mass protests against the government. Although not the equal of his later film, Yeelen, Finyé offers a complex reflection on African culture and politics. Yet the complexity of the film is portrayed with a lightness and efficient simplicity that has come to typify Cissé's work. With a certain virtuosity Cissé combines scenes of everyday life with dreamlike sequences or magic rituals.

Despite the seemingly effortless simplicity conveyed in his films, Cissé works diligently to achieve these results. He aspires to technical perfection and wants his movies to reach the same esthetic level as foreign cinema. To create his films, Cissé must rely heavily on western help and other non-African technicians. And, unlike other filmmakers who consider a movie as primarily a political tool, Cissé has cultural and esthetic visions for his movies.

Paramount to Cissé's work is his use of feminine themes to highlight the feminine condition and to evoke the symbolic sense of femininity in Africa. Cissé has often given feminine themes a central role in his films. In his first feature film Den Muso, one can interpret Tenin's dumbness as a way to show Malian women's submissiveness to patriarchal values. In his later film Waati, the character Nandi illustrates the role of African women in general. All of Cissé's films use these feminine themes as a metaphor for life in Africa.

Working within these feminine themes, Cissé also brings historical perspective to his films. Each film provides a complex web of historically inspired stories, situations, settings, and speech. A full understanding of Cissé's films requires careful attention to his efforts to place his films in historical context. In Finyé, for example, Cissé juxtaposes the film's fictional youth protest with footage from a real protest in Mali in the early 1980s. Unfortunately censorship concerns forced Cissé to only touch on the issues surrounding the ensuing fall of Traoré's regime in Mali. Nevertheless, the force of his Cissé's film highlighted the power of popular protests and, during the events of 1991, Finyé has been remembered for its political significance.

For all his efforts, his self-proclaimed masterpiece, Yeelen, won him international acclaim. Undoubtedly one of the most famous African movies, Yeelen relates the cultural heritage of the Bambara and other Mande-speaking peoples of West Africa. Like Finyé, the film reflects on the tensions between tradition and modernity in a generational conflict; the Chief of the Komo secret society tries to murder his son who is accused of having disclosed some important secrets.

In Yeelen, Cissé strays from the social realism typical of his previous movies and adapts a style that is influenced by the Bambara culture—the language of which predominates in the whole western Africa—and its cosmology and concepts of time and space. For some, the film brought to the screen aspects of their culture or experience never before seen. The film shows a complete ceremony of the Komo secret society, which many Malians are familiar with but few have seen. Indeed the cultural content of the film is incredibly rich. While based on the Bambara culture, the Peul and Dogon cultures are also highlighted. In the end, Yeelen goes beyond the theories about a cultural unity in Africa to provide an argument for the preservation of distinct African cultures. In addition to its cultural complexity, Yeelen focuses on the political complexity in an African nation by perfectly representing the Pan-African aspirations of African filmmakers.

In the early 1990s, Cissé crossed the Malian border to film Waati, a film about apartheid. In Waati, Southern Africa is described as submitting to apartheid whereas Western Africa is almost depicted as an idyllic place. Waati can be considered as the first genuine Pan-African creation at a time when Pan-Africanism was still a theoretical discourse promoted by the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI). While offering a rather predictable description of apartheid, Waati reveals the artistic limits of the topic. Images of the arbitrary violence under apartheid permeate the film. Despite the limited artistic success of the film, the African vision on the barbarism of apartheid was not ineffective. One of the first scenes has obvious cathartic and emotional virtues: on a beach prohibited to Black people, Nandi, the heroine, sees her father and little brother slaughtered by an Afrikaner rider. Using her supernatural powers, Nandi succeeds in killing the rider. All the members of the audience, whether they are African or Westerner, can identify with her gesture as the ultimate defense against evil.

Misunderstandings about his work have been increasing since the release of Waati. Some have severely criticized Cissé as the director of an agonizing Pan-Africanism, while others favor his approach. These contradictory receptions may illustrate the intrinsic paradox of Cissé's work: his aspirations toward technical and esthetic quality as well as his desire to concentrate on African cultures. While critics and scholars usually consider speech as the main element in African cinema, Cissé emphasizes the visual aspects of his movies. Concerned with pictures and camera movement, his portrayal of everyday life and religious rituals—especially since Finyé—dramatizes the political nature of the activities. Cissé's work seems to be increasingly focused on a reflection of cultures to the detriment of a realistic description of Malian or African societies. But in addition to bringing various cultures to the screen, Cissé's contribution to African cinema is based on the development of a style that superposes traditional and modern elements, creating an art that is neither traditionalist nor modernist but rather within post-modernity.

—Samuel Lelievre

Souleymane Cissé

views updated Jun 27 2018

Souleymane Cissé

The Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé (born 1940), known in Africa for his documentary and feature films, was considered one of the major African filmmakers of the late 20th century. He was the first African to win a major award at the Cannes Film Festival in France.

Souleymane Cissé was born in Bamako, Mali, in 1940. He attended his first film at age seven, and thereafter his enthusiasm for film sometimes interfered with his school work, since by age ten he was attending theaters daily. He was educated in Bamako and in Dakar, Senegal, where his family lived for several years. After completing his schooling, Cissé was trained as a film projectionist in Moscow on a three-month scholarship in 1961. He returned to Moscow in 1963, again on scholarship, and studied filmmaking at the State Institute of Cinema until 1969. When Cissé returned to Mali he became the first director of SCINFOMA (Service Cinémato-graphique du Ministère de l'Information du Mali).

Cissé made three films with other students in Moscow, one of which, L'Aspirant (The Aspirant; 1968), was awarded special mention by the State Institute of Cinema. However, he has said that he learned how to make films in his early years at SCINFOMA, where he made more than thirty newsreels and documentary films, carefully examining the results of his work. Cissé made films so that people could understand African societies. He aimed to depict faithfully the cultural heritage, problems, and aspirations of Malian and other African people. The inspiration for his films came from his observations of life around him.

Cissé's feature films photographed in Mali are in the Bambara language and have received awards at African and other international film festivals. In contrast, Waati, about apartheid and the need for Africans to get to know each other, was filmed in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Namibia, and South Africa.

Den Muso (The Young Girl; 1974), Cissé's first feature film, is about a deaf-mute urban Muslim girl who becomes pregnant by one of her father's employees and is rejected by her family. In addition to telling Tenin's story, Cissé examined problems of young women who live in urban areas and the moral conflicts that arise from adhering to "traditional" values in contemporary urban society. Den Musowon the bronze prize at the Carthage Film Festival.

Baara (Work; 1978) won major awards at FESPACO (Festival Panafricain du Cinéma d'Ouagadougou) and the Carthage, Nantes, and Namur film festivals. It is about a young porter who has come from the countryside to the city where he eventually finds work at a textile factory with an engineer whose ideas about labor organization are too democratic for his employer. The film exposes the greed and corruption of the business elite and highlights the emerging social awareness of workers and women. The musical score by Lamine Katé is based on contemporary folk tradition and its lyrics are used as additional commentary on the condition of workers.

Finyé (The Wind; 1982), which also takes place in an urban setting, won major awards at FESPACO and Carthage and was shown in the A Certain Regard section at Cannes in 1983. It is about love between two students whose parents, respectively a military governor and a traditional chief, disapprove of the relationship. The two students participate in a protest over the falsification of exam results and are jailed. Cissé's theme is the recognition of the power of mass protests against the government. Like Cissé's two earlier feature films, it is grounded in realities of Malian life that are meaningful elsewhere in Africa.

Yeelen (Brightness; 1987) is about the cultural heritage of the Bambara and other Mande-speaking peoples of West Africa. It is based on oral tradition and includes a complete initiation ritual of the Komo secret society, which Malians know about but few have ever seen. The plot concerns the conflict between generations, a father and son, and the search for and acquisition of knowledge. In Yeelen Cissé deliberately changed his style from that of a didactic sociopolitical filmmaker to a more expressive style grounded in Bambara cosmology and concepts of time and space. Yet Cissé considered Yeelen his most political film. Critics praised Yeelen for its dazzling photography, excellent musical score, superb acting, embodiment of mythology, and universal accessibility and significance. In 1987 Mali awarded Cissé the Chevalier du Mérit National for Yeelen, which was awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes.

Cissé, like some other African filmmakers, formed his own production company, Les Films Cissé, and produced low-budget films in natural settings. He used local actors and actresses who had not been trained in a drama school and many of whom had not previously acted in a film. Les Films Cissé produced videos of his later feature films, which enabled many Malians who could not attend a theater to enjoy his films. Cissé's feature films have been subtitled in many languages and have been shown worldwide. In 1991 Cissé established the N'Fa Cissé, an award which is given annually in Mali for artistic creation.

Cissé's productions retain their perennial appeal at film festivals, and reviewers never tire of expressing approval and providing further insight into the meaning and implications of his works. He was featured in assorted commemorative documentary collections including the souvenir manual of the Cannes film festival in 1992. In 1994 Rithy Panh produced a videocassette about Souleymane Cisséas part of a series of tapes on contemporary cinema, and Hegel Goutier interviewed Cissé for Courier in 1996.

Further Reading

There is a large literature on Cissé written in French. Biographical background and an analysis of his early films is included in Françoise Pfaff, Twenty-five Black African Filmmakers (1988). An interview by Manthia Diawara, "Souleymane Cissé's Light on Africa" in Black Film Review (1988) focuses on Yeelen. James Leahy comments briefly on all of Cissé's feature and student films in "Stories of the Past—Souleymane Cissé," Monthly Film Bulletin (November 1988).

Additional Sources

Shiri, Keith, Directory of African Film-Makers and Films, Greenwood Press, 1992.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey (Ed.), The Oxford History of World Cinema, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Courier, Africa-Caribbean-Pacific-European, November-December 1996. □