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 on Souleymane Cissé

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 Biography 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.