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As Usual, African Diaspora Representation at Cannes Is Little – Souleymane Cissé’s ‘Oka’ Made the Cut

As Usual, African Diaspora Representation at Cannes Is Little - Souleymane Cissé's 'Oka' Made the Cut

As I’ve come to expect every year, overall African Diaspora participation at the annual Cannes Film Festival, the world’s most *prestigious*, is usually very low; I skipped my yearly predictions post of films that might screen during the festival’s 2015 edition, because, in part, there just isn’t a lot to choose from that would qualify, given what we’ve come to expect from the invitation-only, highly-selective and most publicized film festival on earth.

I’m sadly never really expecting to find more than 2 or 3 Diaspora titles (shorts and features) in the festival’s full lineup – in competition, out of competition, etc – which only reemphasizes the very necessary role that black film festivals around the globe, play. The majority of the films we cover on this blog would likely never participate on the film festival circuit, if it weren’t for black film festivals. Granted, only a few would be able to compete on the grandest cinema stage of all, but even those titles sometimes are overlooked, if only in favor of the familiar (to the various selection committees).

And digging through this morning’s announcement of this year’s full Official Selection for what will be the 68th edition of the festival, which takes place from May 13-24, that trend looks to continues. Although lineup announcements in other program categories (like Directors’ Fortnight and International Critics’ Week) are still to come, so the below list doesn’t tell the entire story this year.

This morning, the Official Selection – the main event of the festival – was revealed: In Competition, Un Certain Regard, Out of Competition, and Special Screenings (the Cinéfondation sidebar, which is a program of short films from film schools all over the world, was announced earlier this week).

And of the 43 feature-length films announced, just one (1) of them is by a black filmmaker – veteran Malian director Souleymane Cissé’s latest, titled “Oka,” selected for the festival’s Special Screenings section. Sadly, while I’m certainly familiar with Cissé’s work (his name, and past films he directed, have been mentioned on this site a few times over the years), “Oka” is a film that I know absolutely nothing about. This is the first time I’m hearing of it, despite my ongoing attempts to stay informed on all things contemporary global black cinema. And unfortunately, Cannes has yet to offer breakdowns of each film, so I can’t even tell you what the film is about. A Google search revealed absolutely nothing at all, whether in English or French, which is a surprise. All Cannes has offered thus far are the names of the films and the directors, with more to come later; so as soon as that happens, I’ll update this post with further details on Cissé’s “Oka.” But if anyone reading this post has some inside info on the film, please let me know (email me at obensont@gmail.com).

Cissé is certainly no stranger to Cannes. Along with the late Ousmane Sembène, Idrissa Ouedraogo and Djibril Diop Mambety, he’s one of the few filmmakers from Sub-Saharan Africa to enjoy real and rooted international reach. The first African filmmaker to win a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Cissé was born in Bamako (Mali) in 1940, went to high school in Dakar before winning a scholarship to attend the VGIK in Moscow – one of the oldest film schools in the world (I should mention that Ousmane Sembène also studied film in Russia, although at the Gorky Film Studio, not at the VGIK).

Cissé would return to Mali, where he became a cameraman and reporter for the Ministry of Information’s film department. In 1975, he made his feature film debut with “Den Muso” (“The Young Girl”), which was the first full length Malian feature in the Bambara language, and also banned in Malian at the time, and Cissé was arrested and jailed. The film tells what was considered a controversial story of a young mute girl who is raped, and rejected by her family. It was banned in Mali and Souleymane 

Then followed “Baara” (“Work”) in 1977, “Finyè” (“The Wind”) in 1981 (both received critical acclaim and won the Étalon de Yenenga Award at FESPACO). And then there was the film considered his masterpiece, “Yeelen” (“Brightness”), which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. His follow-up, “Waati,” was also selected for Cannes in 1995. And his most recent feature, “Min Yè” (“Tell Me Who You Are”), a departure from his typically folkloric village-set tales, a 135-minute exploration of marital conflict in an upper-class couple, was an Official Selection of the 62nd Cannes Festival, in 2009.

Not necessarily a prolific filmmaker, Cissé has released 7 feature films since 1975 (or about 1 film every 7 years) – “released” being the key word here, because there are about 5 films he directed that have never been distributed.

Cissé is also founding president of the Union of West African Cinema and Audiovisual Designers and Entrepreneurs (UCECAO) and devotes his energy to developing an economically viable African audiovisual industry.

Cissé has also sat on many film festival juries, including the Official Selection Jury at the 1983 Cannes Festival, and the Cinéfondation Jury at the 2006 Cannes Festival. In 2011, he sat on the jury of the Tribeca Film Festival.

His work certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed here in the USA. Martin Scorcese once described Cissé’s “Yeelen” as “one of the greatest cinematic experiences of my life,” adding that, “I didn’t realize such wonderful cinema was being made in Africa… Our culture is more enriched by seeing these films.”

Indeed.

The film, inspired by ancient oral Malian legend, is a visually stunning work of cinema art. Set in the powerful Mali Empire of the 13th century, “Yeleen” tells the story of the journey of Niankoro, a young warrior who must comfort an evil sorcerer who also happens to be his father. The film follows him on his quest across arid Bambara, Fulani and Dogan lands and explores a cross-section of West African cultures and folklore. It’s available on DVD here in the USA, by the way. Although, as I’ve said before, it’s a film that deserves to be revisted, revamped to match current HD standards, and released, first in theaters and then on Blu-ray. Maybe it’s something that’s been worked on right now, and I’m just not aware. 

Drawing on traditional Malian folklore, via his films, Cissé often explores conflicts in Mali society, particularly the familiar between the desire for change and the need to preserve tradition.

But again, once I have details on “Oka” (story, cast, etc), I’ll update this post. 

I should also mention that Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako (who made a splash at last year’s Cannes Film Festival with the multiple award-winning “Timbuktu”) is serving as the President of the Cinéfondation and Short Films Jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The 68th annual Cannes Film Festival will run from May 13 – May 24.

The Official Selection lineup follows below. Again, there are still at least 2 other sections to be announced, which will probably happen tomorrow – Directors’ Fortnight and International Critics Week. There are also the films that will compete for the Camera d’Or, which is the award for best first feature film. Also, as was the case last year with “Girlhood,” there could very well be a film within this lot that tells a story centered around the lives of black characters, but which is directed by a white (or non-black) filmmaker, which I won’t know until I’m able to see a breakdown of all the films.

In the meantime, here’s the lineup:

Opening night film
La Tête Haute (Emmanuelle Bercot)

In competition
Dheepan (Jacques Audiard)
A Simple Man (Stephane Brize)
Marguerite and Julien (Valerie Donzelli)
The Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone)
Carol (Todd Haynes)
The Assassin (Hou Hsiao Hsien)
Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhang-Ke)
Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-Eda)
Macbeth (Justin Kurzel)
The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Mon Roi (Maiwenn)
Mia Madre (Nanni Moretti)
Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes)
Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)
Louder Than Bombs(Joachim Trier)
The Sea of Trees (Gus Van Sant)
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)

Un Certain Regard
Madonna (Shin Suwon)
Maryland (Anna Winocour)
The Fourth Direction (Gurvinder Singh)
Masaan (Fly Away Solo) (Neeraj Ghaywan)
Hruter (Rams) (Grimur Hakonarson)
Kishibe No Tabi (Journey to the Shore) (Kurosawa Kiyoshi)
Je Suis Un Soldat (I Am a Soldier) (Laurent Larivere)
Zvizdan (The High Sun) (Dalibor Matanic)
The Other Side (Roberto Minervini)
One Floor Below (Radu Muntean)
Shameless (Oh Seung-Uk)
The Chosen Ones (David Pablos)
Nahid (Ida Panahandeh)
The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Out of Competition
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Irrational Man (Woody Allen)
Inside Out (Pete Docter and Ronaldo del Carmen)
The Little Prince (Mark Osborne)

Special Screenings
Oka (Souleymane Cisse)
A Tale of Love and Darkness (Natalie Portman)
Hayored Lema’ala (Elad Keidan)
Amnesia (Barbet Schroeder)
Panama (Pavel Vuckovic)
Asphalte (Samuel Benchetrit)

Midnight Screenings
O Piseu (Office) (Hong Won-Chan)
Amy (Asif Kapadia)

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