Souleymane Cissé. With the Eyes of eternity

by Maria Coletti and Leonardo De Franceschi

Water. Women looking in the mirror

English abstract of the chapter on women in Cissé’s films, from the book Souleymane Cissé. With the Eyes of Eternity (2009, spanish/english edition)

The central role of women in Cissé’s cinema can be attributed to an interest in the female character as shown by many other African directors who dealt from the beginning with the subject of the female condition as part of the struggle between tradition and modernity and as a metaphor for neo-colonial power and reappropriation of cultural roots and dignity in the face of all kind of oppression. But what makes Cissé’s cinema so significant regarding the image of woman is the continuity with which the director tackles the female character, who crosses all his films as a red thread, or, more appropriately, as a stream: a subterranean river which flows throughout his cinema, sometimes on the surface and at times deep below, stretching between history and myth.

It is not by chance that the female characters in Cissè’s films are associated with the natural elements, as it mostly happens in oral tradition and in literature. Admiration for the female body is connected with the relationship perceived between woman and the forces of nature, her fertility with that of the earth. While natural landscape and trees often have an important role to play – as a refuge for the female character or as a direct link to the ancestral realm and to the supernatural – water is without doubt the most prevalent element when presenting female figures in his films.

Water is the element which refers to the female essence par excellence, associated in the collective imagery with the very idea of the source of life: amniotic fluid, blood (menstrual, too), mother’s milk. Another symbolic object which is often associated with water or milk is the calebasse, a domestic utensil seen as a female and fertility symbol across the whole African continent, on three levels: cosmic (as an image of the world/earth), human (as a metaphoric surrogate of uterus and female sexuality) and cultural (cooking and nurturing).

In Dogon cosmogony Amma brings forth creation through Nommos, emanations of the godhead, conceived as a vital force which is both water and word and which is at the origin of all living beings. A similar figure is present in other cosmogonies to be found in Mali. In the Bambara oral tradition we find Faro, an androgynous divinity, master of water and word and creator of universe together with Pemba. In the Bambara conceptual universe, Pemba and Faro also represent the sky and the earth, two great spirits whose interaction brings forth both conservation and change. Pemba and Faro are therefore a dialectical couple who can symbolize being and becoming. Besides, Faro expresses the principle of duality and complementarity, central to the Bambara philosophy: as an androgynous being it embodies both the male and the female and thus allows the intimate association of differences.

It is once again not by chance that the paths followed by female characters in Cissé’s films can be read in the light of this original duality, as a quest for a positive complementarity with the male element.
Tenin, the main character in Den muso, does not manage to find any balance with the male figures of her life: all her relationships end to be prejudiced by conflict, violence and separation.
The two wives in Baara, even though they are different in character, social class and educational background, both show a complete detachment towards their husbands, expressed by the use of camera angles, with frequent plongée or contre-plongée to underline power relationship.
It is in Finye that the male and female characters discover their vital duality, their positive complementarity, through the eyes of Ba and Batrou, the young and rebel couple at the heart of the film. A mythical and timeless atmosphere fully unfolds in Yeelen, along the path followed by the main character, the male hero Nianankoro who nevertheless relies on the female element to carry out his own task of revolution and regeneration, thanks to his mother and then to his wife.
Cissé immerses himself again in history with Waati, but within a spiral circularity which like a whirlpool constantly blends space and time, creating a more complex female character who turns duality into the very essence of her being. Nandi, the female heroine of the film, is a dual figure par excellence, in the sense that she expresses her quest for balance among opposing forces not only in her relationship with the male element but in all the most significant relationships which punctuate the path she is on: the symbiotic relationship with her grandmother, the shared life with her partner, the transfer of identity to her adoptive daughter, but also the different branches of knowledge represented by her university studies and the Rastafarian philosophy.

The central role of the female character in Cissé’s films can therefore be read as a journey of liberation and growth, from Den muso to Waati, via Finye, through the eyes of three heroines who differ in their force of transformation: Tenin, Batrou and Nandi. While the use of close-ups is present in all of his films, it is certainly mostly significant in the long sequence depicting the discussion of Nandi’s university graduation thesis: while she tackles the subject of the aesthetical value of the mask in African civilization, Cissé portrayes her face, by shrouding her in an evocative chiaroscuro, as if she were a living mask.

In this respect, Cissé not only has placed the role of women and the importance of gender relationships at the very centre of his films, but he has also formulated a powerful equation between the female element, the African continent and the cinema. Women in his films are able to look themselves with courage in the mirror of life, of history.
From Tenin’s petrified gaze at the end of Den muso to Nandi’s powerful gaze which can turn anyone to stone in Waati: the female character has evolved from simply observing the world to transforming it. And the same can be said about the female voice: from the deadly silence shown by Tenin in Den muso to the vital power of the word spoken first by Batrou in Finye and then by Nandi in Waati.

Awareness – by Cissé, by his heroines – becomes the gift of synthesis and creation.

Cast & Credits

By Maria Coletti and Leonardo De Franceschi
(Ed. Junta de Andalucia/Filmoteca de Andalucia/Fundacion El Llegado Andalusì/Festival de Granada Cines del Sur, 2009)

Chapter « Agua. Mujeres que se miran al espejo/Water. Women looking in the mirror »

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