Yeelen is a great movie, but needed to have a bigger cast and set
The central thing about Yeelen, is the fact that it is the one of the few films that actually tackles the hard topic of the importance and power of symbolism of the "African Mystery System". However, whereas the film starts out by explaining the importance of the "pillars" in ancient Mali society, subsequently the director fails to explain that the "magic" is a metaphor for something more real.
For those who don't know, and I am not sure the director understands this, the "magic pillars" in the film are actually metaphors for government power and operations in ancient Africa. The movie makes them out to be magical, which perhaps is a popular shorthand used in African discourse...but in the end fails to "take us backstage" as a way of demystifying African discourse.
The same pillar system of symbolism was used in Egypt and was later adopted by Christians and as well the Freemasons...and the movie should have tried harder to reveal the real reason and thinking behind the symbolism and magic. The movie only deals with the power metaphors concerning the pillars as if they were magical properties only.
I thought that the treatment of the characters, their discourse and social relations, was beautiful and authentic...and in fact unmatched by any of the usual Hollywood fare. American film makers could learn a lot watching Yeelen. Most contemporary African movies, influenced by American and European film, tend to be misleading in their interpretation of African community relations.
However, the director deliberately complicates the film when, by trying to achieve suspense, he keeps viewers guessing about the chronology of events, drops new characters into scenes without introducing them, only for you to discover the identity of the characters several scenes later. This is very distracting.
Moreover, many extras overact, and sometimes the tempo and rhythm of the film is off (partly an editing problem perhaps). But not just the extras. There is a really weak scene in the film, where the main character is fleeing through the savanna is badly acted...and badly edited. It could have used a night scene and a scene showing a desperately thirsty and hungry fugitive scouring for water. Instead, the character encounters no real hardship even though he is appears to be staggering around ineffectually, and even appears to outrun people on horses who catch him supposedly trying to steal cows? Really odd and ineffective scene. I would have cut it out altogether.
What the film does have that works incredibly well, is that it tells a powerful and complicated story, and succeeds in simplifying it. The landscapes in the film are breathtaking.
A bigger budget for choreography and sets would have resolved some of the weaknesses. For example, the war scenes involved only dozens of people...what if there had been hundreds or thousands of extras, decked out in authentic ancient African military gear? Or if the king actually had a court and palace, as was indeed the case in ancient Mali, instead of sitting under a tree?
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