Souleymane Cissé: Cinema Between Darkness and Light

Lindsay Parnell

Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé actively represents and promotes African cinema on the world stage. His internationally acclaimed films portray the crude reality of Mali’s silent voices, but, as Lindsay Parnell argues, they also convey a message of hope and courage.
A trio of inspired visionaries define modern Malian film: Souleymane Cissé, Adama Drabo‎ and Cheick Oumar Sissoko‎ have all written, produced and directed films that depict the heroism of men and women in times of darkness. Challenging, unsettling, and uplifting, Souleymane Cissé’s thirteen acclaimed films explore cultural identity and portray the individual psyche in times of great struggle.
Born in 1940 in Bamako, but educated in Dakar, Cissé went back to Mali in 1960 after the independence of the country. Working as an assistant projectionist on the set of a documentary film, Cissé – who was always a keen cinephile – developed a passionate enthusiasm for filmmaking. After obtaining a scholarship to the School of Cinema and Television in Moscow, Cissé returned to Mali in 1970 where he became a cameraman producing documentary films for the Ministry of Information. This ultimately led to the 1972 production and release of his first feature film, Cinq jours d’une vie (Five Days in a Life). The film, which premiered at the Carthage Film Festival, tells the tale of a young man who abandons his religious studies to live on the streets, where he becomes a low-level criminal.
Two years later, Cissé released his most controversial work, Den Muso (The Young Girl), which was banned and had its director arrested for accepting financial support from the French. Den Muso is the tragic story of a mute child who becomes pregnant after being raped. Her own family and her rapist subsequently ignore and reject her. Here, as in many of his films, Cissé explores the great human perseverance in times of adversity. His characters, desperately seeking an identity within the society they live in, embark on truly inspiring journeys.
Cissé received a slew of international film accolades. His 1979 film Baara (Work) for instance, which chronicles the murder of a factory worker, was a winner at both Nantes Three Continents Festival and the Locarno International Film Festival. In addition, Brightness, released in 1987, received various awards including the Jury Prize at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. Released in 2009, Cissé’s most recent film, Min Ye (Tell Me Who You Are), is a poignant domestic drama set in Bamako, Mali. Centred on a disloyal trio of characters, a man Issa, his wife Mimi and her lover Aba, Min Ye portrays individuals who struggle to co-exist amidst the anxiety and sexual tension generated by their complicated relationships.
By articulating narratives that breathe life into the silenced voices of his homeland, Souleymane Cissé has greatly contributed to Mali’s flourishing film industry while promoting African cinema on the international stage. The filmmaker also presides the Union of Creators and Entrepreneurs of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts of West Africa (UCECAO) as well as taking part in the annual International Festival of Nyamina, Mali.

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