Souleymane CissÉ - Director

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), and

Souleymane Cissé
Souleymane Cissé
L'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 Les Nouvelles Littéraires (Paris), April-May 1983.

"Bourrasques au Mali," interview with C. Ruelle, in Magazine Littéraire (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 Cahiers du 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 Cahiers du 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 of Cinema , 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 du Cinéma (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 du Cinéma (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

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