Divorce, Malian Style
By Leo Goldsmith
Min Ye… (Tell Me Who You Are)
Dir. Souleymane Cissé, Mali/France/Sweden, no distributor
"Each film is a miracle," said Souleymane Cissé, and in his 40-year career, the filmmaker has made about a half dozen of them. Min Ye… (Tell Me Who You Are) is the Malian director's first feature in over a decade, and it comes to us, as do many films from contemporary Africa, partly due to European funding and technical support. But the film also draws on the resources of Mali's best-funded and most popular visual media—television—to present its take on the culturally entrenched practice of polygamy. Unlike in other parts of West Africa, where the video market comprises the bulk of visual culture, television production and broadcasting receives healthy state funding in Mali, where Malian cinema struggles for financing from abroad and wide release at home. Originally planned as a ten-hour miniseries, Min Ye seems to take some of its form and idiom from Malian television serials, with their lurid, twisting plotlines, expressive soap-operatics from their performers, and functionality as a popular platform for social debate.
Cissé's most famous film in the West is probably Yeelen, his visionary Pan-African creation myth, which won Cannes' 1987 Grand Jury Prize. But that astonishing film is in fact the mythopoetic centerpiece of a career book-ended by works of social realism that deal with issues of class, gender, and labors in Mali. Earlier films, like Den Muso (The Girl) and Baara (Work) dealt explicitly with social class divisions and their impact on the community at large, while later films, like Finye (The Wind), addressed military rule. (Yeelen also touches upon social issues in more subtle ways, and Cissé has spoken of his use of folklore and fantasy to veil his social criticism at the time of making the film.) In Min Ye this is all set against the backdrop of an increasingly consumerist Malian middle class, whose complacent disregard for gender inequity and income discrepancies Cissé portrays in myriad tiny details.
Min Ye stars Assane Kouyate as Issa, a filmmaker who lives in the torment of jealousy and suspicion about one of his wives, Mimi (played big by the popular TV presenter and journalist Sokana Gakou), who works as a doctor for a national development project. The couple’s sources of income are far from clear—Issa's weighty occupation suggests only that he’s sensitive and thoughtful, in spite of his clinging to the polygamist tradition; her work is seen only briefly, and it doesn't occupy much of her time. Indeed, what the couple do spend much of their time on is scheming—she to meet her lover; he to catch her in the act—and then quarreling, rendered by Cissé in repeated, explosive outbursts.
The emotional fireworks mainly come from Mimi, Issa's least favorite wife in this comedy of unmarriage, whose moods and whims change with her wardrobe. And what a wardrobe: her flowing caftans of shimmering, vivid fabric and puzzlingly large golden rings are nearly overshadowed by her great gobs of makeup and a medusa-like shock of shiny, black locks. She’s a force to be reckoned with—and aims to prove it when Issa's impatience and suspicions prompt him to involve his lawyers. “He's going to go through hell,” she tells a friend, who in turn cautions her, “Powerful women aren't popular here.”
This may be so, but it’s one of the paradoxes of Cissé's vision of Mali that there are so many powerful women about, yet so few powerful enough to alter the old-fashioned, problematic traditions. Once Issa involves the law, the story pitches back and forth between the domestic space and the civic and social organs of the community, as Mimi and Issa's bust-ups and family squabbles become the problems of those around them, too: servants, wives, children, siblings, friends, lawyers, policemen, and even the local fortune teller. In all of this, it’s often the women—sisters, wives, attorneys, and officials—who find themselves upholding a tradition that permits male polygamy and forbids female philandering. With Mimi as a foil for wise, clear-headed women everywhere, Cissé shows how their roles as stabilizers or unifiers force women to work against their own interests, as in a scene at Issa's birthday party, which can't help but devolve into intra-wife name-calling and a nearly literal tug-of-war for the husband's attention.
Not that Issa is let off entirely, even if he’s one of many men in the film whose adherence to tradition causes trouble in his life. Abba, Mimi's lover, also has wives (two of them— one of whom he identifies as “a slut”), and he somehow symbolizes them with the two cell phones he carries. (“I'll call you back,” he says into the mobile in his right hand as Mimi waits on the other end of the one in his left. “I'm on the phone.”) With his usual evenhandedness, Cissé treats the love scenes between Abba and Mimi as genuinely tender, but there is the lingering sense that Abba is no fool, a materialistic creep who relies on the cronyism of the local police force to duck out of Issa's lawsuit.
This distinctly TV-friendly mix of surface complexity and populist characterization will make the film a slog for many expecting the lush totemic grandeur—or indeed the African exoticism—of a Yeelen (in spite of a gorgeous soundtrack featuring Ali Farka Touré, Vieux Farka Touré, Rokia Traoré, Oumou Sangaré, and the Ensemble Instrumental National du Mali; even the ring tones are beautiful). Cissé packs in plot information in a manner that betrays the project's origins as a work five times longer. Furthermore, inconsistency in sound, framing, and exposure suggest a film made quickly and cheaply (reflected in scenes of Issa at work alongside a cinematographer carrying consumer-grade equipment).
But this comparative roughness is not the work of a sloppy, amateurish filmmaker—much less a primitive sensibility, as some contemporary Western reviews of Yeelen ventured when puzzled about the film's non-Western narrative structure. Cissé learned filmmaking in Moscow in the early Sixties, and his recent adoption of the populist television production model suggests that he is simply adapting to the realities of cinema in a country that, by his account, has exactly one movie theater (he's hoping to book his film there). With financing for feature films becoming increasingly unattainable for West African filmmakers (unless they have Danny Glover's help, as Abderrahmane Sissako did for Bamako), the more affordable forms of television and video provide new avenues for filmmakers to engage audiences, tell stories, and address issues on their own terms. Min Ye is not a perfect specimen of this, but it offers the rare chance to watch a master working in an idiom to which we are seldom exposed.