SCREEN QUEST: YEELEN at BFI & THE DARK CRYSTAL at The Prince Charles

RADIANT CIRCUS went to see YEELEN introduced by Ben Okri at BFI Southbank (16 MAR) & caught up with THE DARK CRYSTAL as it starts a grind show run at The Prince Charles Cinema (until 29 MAR). Here’s our writeup.

The process of compiling a weekly guide to London’s adventurous moving pictures – and our commitment to seeing as much of what we blog about as we can – produces some startling alignments in the moving picture multiverse. Here’s a tale of two epic fictions from our current 1980s-themed guide.

YEELEN screened at BFI (16 MAR).
YEELEN screened at BFI (16 MAR 2018).

BFI Screen Epiphanies: Ben Okri Introduces YEELEN (16 MAR 2018, BFI Southbank)

Poet and novelist Ben Okri handpicked Souleymane Cissé’s 1987 film YEELEN to be projected as part of BFI’s ongoing Screen Epiphanies series (“a prominent figure from the arts introduces a film that inspired them”). Interviewed on stage before the film by Gaylene Gould, BFI’s Head Of Cinemas & Events, Okri gave passionate talk about why this rarely screened film really matters.

Described by Okri as “the kind of film you see once and it inscribes itself on you”, YEELEN addresses the challenge of “how to speak in an authentic African way”. It is a film about a “father, son and the redemptive power of the feminine” that blends everyday magic, people, light and landscape to create “an extraordinary ritual experience”.

As Cissé himself described it, YEELEN is a film in which he hoped “the ancient depths of African culture will surge up again”. In the film, a young magician is forced to leave his village by a vengeful father who has seen a vision of how his own son will destroy him. Pursued by the father’s powerful magic, Nianankoro falls into the service of King Rouma, before having an affair with the king’s youngest wife, Attou. This betrayal results in the two youngsters being expelled. Finally finding protection from his blind uncle, Nianankoro is given an ancient relic – Kore’s Wing – with which to do battle with his father. The ensuing apocalypse both transforms the world around them into desert and gives birth to a new nation.

YEELEN screened at BFI (16 MAR).
YEELEN screened at BFI (16 MAR).

For Okri, encountering the medium of film was about “finding a new kind of mathematics for the poetry of the spirit”,  and he has come to regard cinema as “one of the revelations of contemporary life… the language of dreams.” Born in Nigeria, his early experiences of moving pictures were in wide open spaces – the conjurings of travelling showmen – as opposed to the western tradition of enclosed dark rooms. These open air exhibits inspired Okri’s conception of cinema as “a space that opens into an infinity of your internal truths”.

Returning to the cultural importance of YEELEN, Okri issued a challenge to the BFI and to Gould personally: “this is a film that eminently deserves your focus of conservation”. The ensuing discussion revealed BFI’s powerlessness in such rights-restricted matters and addressed significant concerns about which films are considered to be important and who gets to make such decisions.

Stepping down into the auditorium to see YEELEN for only the second time, Okri wished the audience well with a film that powerfully describes “the way in which the dust of a certain place dreams”. And we were off.

THE DARK CRYSTAL at The Prince Charles Cinema (until 29 MAR)

THE DARK CRYSTAL screens at The Prince Charles Cinema.
THE DARK CRYSTAL screens at The Prince Charles Cinema (16 to 22 MAR).

Jim Henson’s 1982 passion project – an epic story told entirely through magisterial puppetry – enjoys a grind show run at The Prince Charles thanks to Park Circus, the Jim Henson Company and Universal Pictures. We caught up with the film the day after seeing YEELEN. They make a surprisingly robust double bill.

THE DARK CRYSTAL is the tale of two ancient races – the Mystics and the Skeksis – who are dying as their world comes to an end. Seeking immortality, the Skeksis have sought to eliminate a race of elf-like creatures, the Gelflings who, it is prophesied, will destroy them. One such orphan – Jen – has been sheltered by the Mystics and is sent by his dying master to heal the crystal that will bring unity to the universe. With the aid of Aughra – an ancient seer – and Kira – another Gelfling – Jen must travel to their castle and overcome the fearsome Skeksis. After a life-threatening battle, Jen heals the crystal which reunites the Mystics and the Skesis as one, the urSkeks, who leave the planet to new stewardship.

RADIANT CIRCUS SCREEN GUIDE - NOW SHOWING: THE DARK CRYSTAL screens at The Prince Charles.
THE DARK CRYSTAL screens at The Prince Charles (16 to 22 MAR).

THE DARK CRYSTAL and YEELEN both tell of the origins and rebirth of all things. We have two realms of light – YEELEN is variously translated as The Light or Brightness – where “natural wizards” practice  the magic that binds the ancient universe. Both realms are endangered by a rift in relationships that needs to be healed. Both films draw on the deep stories of our species and offer something about the emergence of new life from a violently corrupted, self-preserving past. Indeed, in both THE DARK CRYSTAL and YEELEN, youth is persecuted as a threat to the established order but only youthful resistance can lead to renewal.

From an era full of such tales, there are similarities aplenty. These are stories of initiation, as quests take their heroes from childhoods without burden into the powers and privileges of adulthood. Nianankoro and Jen’s fates both turn on the beauty and wisdom of old women – as ancient and textured as the landscapes they live in. Indeed, Aughra and Mah are catalysts for the young heroes’ journeys, provoking action and dispensing crystals that are crucial to success. Younger women – both marginalised by plot contrivances – contribute powerful forces of sacrifice and redemption (but only Kira actually has wings…). Both films rely on the practical textures of their production designs to define their worlds.

The films, of course, differ dramatically. THE DARK CRYSTAL is constructed almost entirely on soundstages with some of the most exquisite and extensive puppetry every committed to film. It is sometimes dismissed for its primitive narrative, despite the enormous artistry of its craft. YEELEN is rooted in the sunlight of the real, a profound evocation of an ancient place and the rhythm of the peoples that pass through it. It is sometimes dismissed for the primitive nature of its craft, despite the enormity of its narrative. Significantly, Henson’s film does not contain the line “My penis betrayed me” nor does its generic hero’s journey have YEELEN’s apparent rootedness in specific local legend that makes it such a divining rod for an ancient African mythology.

THE DARK CRYSTAL screens at The Prince Charles Cinema.
THE DARK CRYSTAL screens at The Prince Charles Cinema.

What really stands out are the different fates of the two films.

THE DARK CRYSTAL has been repeatedly restored, rescanned and reissued whilst YEELEN remains locked in rights and public awareness issues that threaten its very existence. YEELEN at the BFI seemed to be only about a quarter sold, despite Okri’s superstar status, the rarity of the film and the venue’s loyal cinephile membership.

YEELEN and THE DARK CRYSTAL remain entirely compelling more than 30 years after their creation. You should see them (anew). But more than that. You should adventure to seek out all such stories. Like Okri’s early encounters under the stars, our hunt for adventurous moving pictures involves doing what we can to retain an open-eyed sense of wonder at the infinite potential of the moving image. It also involves being an active member of the audience, buying tickets for films we might not know alongside those that we do and supporting efforts to preserve the world’s fragile film heritage. As our back-to-back experience of YEELEN and THE DARK CRYSTAL shows, more often than not, we will discover stories that unite us.

“Now we leave you the crystal of truth. Make your world in its light.”

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Radiant Circus