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Cannes 2015: We Now Know What Souleymane Cissé’s ‘O ka’ Is About + Cast & Poster

Cannes 2015: We Now Know What Souleymane Cissé's 'O ka' Is About + Cast & Poster

It’s one of two “black films,” my research tells me (the other being Jonas Carpignano’s much-anticipated feature film debut “Mediterranea”), that will screen at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the world’s most *prestigious*, which kicks off tomorrow, May 13, and runs through the 24.

Veteran Malian director Souleymane Cissé’s latest, titled “O Ka,” selected for the festival’s Special Screenings section. A month ago, when I initially published news of the film being selected to screen at the festival this year, there wasn’t any information about it available anywhere. Absolutely nothing! Not even Cannes had the important details (like synopsis and cast) on its website. And sadly, I don’t have any connections (whether directly or indirectly) to the filmmaker.

Thankfully, a day before the festival begins, I now have information I can share! Even a poster (although no trailer yet).

In “O Ka’ (which means “Our House”), Cissé tells the story of his ancestors, going back to colonial times. It is a saga of the Cissé family tree, tracing several generations. It’s a story told with multiple voices and perspectives. First from Souleymane Cissé’s voice, and also those of his relatives, from the oldest to the youngest, who belong to the present generation of Cissés. 

The official synopsis reads: “‘O Ka’ is the family of an artist in Bamako – that house which binds him to his parents, to his story, to his memories, and from which his sisters were expelled, regardless of the law, some day in 2008. It is also his country, Mali, which he saw sinking into war, in spite of the traditions of tolerance which had driven it since the independence. The fight for truth goaded the artist to speak and commit himself…”

Getting even more specific, there’s this from writer Thomas Wallon, which I lifted from the film’s press kit I received today: “It seems like a rather simple story: by counterfeiting
some land ownership titles, the
Diakités, a family who had benefited from
the Cissé family’s hospitality, claims rights
to the Cissés’ ancestral house, located in
the old commune of Bozola, in Bamako.
The Diakités bribed a judge who then
ruled in their favour and ordered that
the four Cissé sisters be expelled from
the house, in spite of their age and, above
all, in spite of the law. Deeply wounded,
Cissé’s sisters decided to sit in front of
the house and claim for justice. The short
news item is real, far from being unique
in Mali, no matter how obvious the fraud
appears. However, their judicial fight has
been on since 2008 and the Supreme
Court has yet to reach a verdict.”

So there’s the actual physical house itself, at the center of the legal battle; and then there’s the house that is the Cissé clan, established and solidified, going back many generations; and finally there’s the house that is the country in which it all unfolds – Mali; all 3 “houses” in danger of being lost, literally and figuratively. 

“He is filming those who embody hope for their country, the value of education, the power of love to defeat evil,” adds Wallon.

By the way, the filmmaker’s real-life sisters play themselves in the film: Magnini Koroba Cissé, Aminata Cissé, Badjénèba Cissé, and M’Ba Cissé.

Souleymane 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 Scorsese 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.

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. 

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