Radical and Clear-Sighted Rage

A village in Mali puts the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on trial in director Abderrahmane Sissako's latest film. The result is one of the finest films of the year, says Olaf Möller

Bamako by Abderrahmane Sissako (photo: www.bamako-film.com)
Sissako's film Bamako centers on a show trial in which the plaintiff, "African society,"</wbr> argues against exploitation by the defendant, the World Bank

​​Something extraordinary is going on in the backyard of a slum in the Malian capital, Bamako. A trial is underway in which the representatives of the exploited and dispossessed of Africa have gathered to take legal action against the organisations and institutions that are in control of the continent, and, in the opinion of those present, driving it ever closer to the brink of calamity.

The hustle and bustle of everyday life goes on around them as the legal dignitaries debate: there are mouths to be fed, after all, even as the World Bank is having explained to it just exactly what debt erasure and rising illiteracy have to do with one another.

The legal spectacle, it appears, leaves most of the locals cold, and where it does generate interest it is only because of its potential as a source of power and money, as in the case of the corrupt doorman with his pilot's sunglasses and studied demeanour of international cool.

Love in the time of globalisation

The two central characters, Chaka the singer and her unemployed husband Mele, are struggling to preserve their relationship, under siege from life and the pressing need to find money, a necessity if they are to continue to live in the house in whose yard nothing less than the nature of capitalism is up for debate.

​​The very same house and yard where Abderrahmane Sissako grew up – a Mauritanian boy in Mali, and always an outsider. At 18 he was forced to flee after the smashing of a strike that he had helped to organise. It was an experience that turned him into a wanderer; first to Mauritania and time spent in hiding, later to Russia where he would study film, before, almost inevitably for a black director, going to France.

Finally and gradually, however, he was drawn back, work by work, to his old stamping ground of Africa.

With "Bamako" Sissako has also in some sense come full circle; returned to the starting point of his wanderings. But the film also represents a new beginning: his work now striving to have a practical applicability – as though he had rediscovered the inner fire of the political agitator.

Since around the mid 1990's, the cinema of sub-Saharan Africa has been in crisis. The old guard, tired of being led around by the nose (mostly by the French), preferring to retire gracefully rather than tow the line in servility; the younger generation knowing only the tyranny that comes with the support offered by funding bodies such as ARTE and the World Cinema Fund and their constant demands for ever more of the same.

Withdrawal into the realm of irony?

Sissako proved to be the most promising of this younger group, yet it had appeared as though he wanted to take refuge in a particular brand of melancholy modernism and ironic observation, laced with political allegory.

Bamako by Abderrahmane Sissako (photo: www.bamako-film.com)
Court drama "Bamako": Legal action against the organisations and institutions that are in control of Africa

​​So "Bamako" comes in some ways as a surprise. Though he has actually only added an element of radicalism to his work, the underlying method is what we have come to expect of Sissako.

There is the involvement of non-professional actors who improvise scenes, for example – including in this case real lawyers and attorneys who invest the proceedings, as it were, with seriousness and gravity – or the circular tendency in the narrative development by way of clever variations, the clearly constructed images defined through strong colouring and decisive use of light as a creative structural medium.

Sissako's "Brechtian moment"

The new Sissako, however, in a way reminiscent of the old masters: Haile Gerima, Med Hondo and Ababacar Samb-Makharam, provides a Brechtian moment of heterogeneous, essayistic commentary.

​​Mixing film and video material for the court scenes, imparts a sense of unreality, a slightly artificial feel to the trial scenes, which paradoxically, because it is the way we are used to seeing things, actually gives greater realism.

There is also a film within the film, in the form of a short western sequence called "Death in Timbuktu" (with starring cowboy roles for co-producer Danny Glover, the Palestinian writer Elia Suleiman and film veteran director provocateur Jean-Henri Roger, among others) a sequence which serves to remind us that Africa itself is partly to blame for its exploitation – quite apart from the fact that it also provides Sissako with an opportunity to pay homage to his youthful obsession with the films of Bud Spencer and Terrence Hill.

There is a great deal of anger and much sadness in this film, but above all it displays a highly sensitive awareness of the true nature of things as they are. One of the few important films to appear this year.

Olaf Möller

© Olaf Möller 2007

Translated from the German by Ron Walker


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Website of the Film "Bamako"