Human beings have existed for 2 million years. Settled living, however, began only with the practice of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago. That leaves us with 199,00,00 years of human existence that we know very little about, and that was very different from ours.

Who were those human beings who populated the earth for 95% of human history? Surely, they knew love, that most essential of human qualities. When they saw the face of a deceased comrade, alive yesterday, but dead now, were they also thrown into reflection about what it all means, what the purpose of our short span of life on this earth is? Were they overcome with jealousy towards a rival, and touched by the innocence of a little child? The answers to these questions leave much to our imagination, while archaelogy and paleontology fill in only a few gaps.

However, there is one way we may still know about our pre-historic ancestors. While settled living began 10,000 years ago, till the present day, there have existed tribes of people who have carried on a culture that is not very different from that of our ancestors several milleniums ago. These tribes are what some anthropologists have called ‘survivals’, of a time begone and an era that shall perhaps never return. Modern life has affected them too, and there is little doubt that the lifestyle of the ancients is not fully intact even in these tribes. Yet, they offer us a glimpse into what humanity was, and more importantly, what humanity perhaps still is, under the layers of consciousness moulded by modern life.

The 1987 film Yeelen (Brightness) gives us a glimpse into the lives of such human beings. Set among the Bambra people of Mali, Africa, the film tells the story of a young man called Niankoro, whose father Soma – an esteemed magician – wants to kill him because he does not want anyone to be heir to his magical powers. The powers, considered by these people as a gift from the heavens, are not to be appropriated by one person. However, that is precisely what Soma wants to do, exhibiting the perennial conflict between the inspirations, gifts and graces we have from nature, and the ego that wants to control them in its own manner.

Niankoro, on the other hand, has learnt the art of magic from his mother, who tells him to search for Soma’s blind twin brother who can give him the powers to protect himself. The story has an Oedipal element to it, giving it a mythical touch. In Niankoro’s journey to his blind uncle, we see him going through a small village where he displays his magical abilities, wins the trust of its king, and also falls prey to his own sexual instincts. Through this story we are able to witness a culture very different from our own, a culture where magic prevails, where the creatureliness of man before nature is totally evident at all moments, and survival determines much of human life. The film ends with a mythical face-off between Niankoro and his father, whose meaning may be understood in different ways, or not understood at all, for the primary purpose of the film is not intellectual understanding, but a taste of what it meant to be a human being in such cultures.

The vast, barren landscape of Africa is an ever-present character in the film, and for its inhabitants, a place filled with ghosts, spirits and magical powers waiting to be tapped. As a silent presence throughout the film, it gives one the sense of being the narrator of this unusual tale. In a particular scene from the film, Niankoro sits alone at dusk, by a fire, burning a piece of a horse’s bone. Along with the crackling sounds from the fire, we can gradually hear crickets in the background as the night falls. The glow of the fire slowly becomes more intense. Niankoro is conducting a magical rite to ward off the enemies from the village whose king has requested him for help. After a while, he takes the bone in both his hands and spits on it. Something of his inner substance has been transferred to the bone. Then, he plants the bone in a little hill of sand. The rite has been performed. The enemies shall be routed.

This is the psychological and cultural universe of pre-civilisational man. What is inside may also exist outside, inner states can be transferred to outer objects – the bone in Niankoro’s case – and outer objects can have an effect on inner states. The paranoid possibility of black magic lies everywhere, and so does the possibility of death, by attack from man or beast, or by disease or starvation. At the same time, the eyes of these people convey a sense of deep aliveness, for they are in touch with life itself, unmitigated by the veils of money, technology, planning, and much else and envelopes the hearts of the city bred.

Almost every person in the film seems to be embodying an archetypal story – the ageing king who needs help from a young hero, the young hero who fights his father, the suffering mother who protects the son from the father, the blind sage who gives strength to the hero, the mad magician, the submissive servants of the king who seem to lack a personality of their own – these characters live as if it is not their own lives they are living, but they are only vehicles to the repetition of eternal themes embedded in the rythms of life.

As we see the harsh sun glaring at the barren African landscape, we know that these people live a life that is totally unshielded, they are as close to life in its pristine form as is possible. In their total psychological nakedness lies their immense presence as well as their insecurity and fear.

The film moves slowly, often with sparse dialogue, giving us a picture of what life must really be for the Bambara person. The great psychologist Carl Gustav Jung once said, “there is a 2 million year old man in each of us.” Jung meant that in each of us, there are layers within the psyche, and the psychological dynamics we see in the lives of the Bambara people are potentially present in us too, with all their strengths and weaknesses. Self-knowledge entails coming in touch with those aspects of oursevles.

Yeelen is like a document of anthropology, elucidating how other cultures – as vastly different from us as we can imagine – have envisioned what a human life is, and what potentials it holds. But unlike a scientific documentary, Yeelen tells their tale with the fascination and power of cinema, making it an evocative piece of art that would touch anyone with a curiosity about human nature.

~ by tdcatss on June 11, 2012.

3 Responses to “Yeelen”

  1. Reblogged this on Awesome Badgirl & Awesome Pen Pal To Prison Inmates and commented:
    this is so interesting.

  2. beautiful! one of my fave pieces thus far! :-)

  3. thanks :D!

    you can take the movie from me if you want it

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