Mali (2006) Dir. Abderrahmane Sissako
In a small courtyard in the Mali capital of Bamako, a trial is taking place in which the defendants are the IMF and World Bank accused of being the cause of the African debt and the mass poverty that blights the country, while the opposition claim that homegrown corruption is to blame.
I think I can say without exaggeration that I have never seen a film like Bamako before and that is not damning it with feint praise either. The basic concept may sound surreal but one doesn’t feel that way from watching it, instead recognising it as the genius plot device it is for Abderrahmane Sissako to vent his anger and frustration at an important issue in an openly didactic way that is disarmingly subtle at the same time. The subject matter may not sound like a barrel of laughs or the basis for an exciting film but this is as engrossing a yarn as you’ll ever find. It’s devastatingly simple in its execution but its impact is hard hitting and deeply felt.
At first the very sight of the complete courtroom experience – the judge, clerks and counsels in full robes and regalia, a witness stand, etc – being relocated into the open air courtyard of small impoverished communal housing block reeks of satire but it is this juxtaposition of pomp versus poverty that sets the tone perfectly for Sissako’s savage message.
While the trial is running the tenants of the housing block carry on their daily chores and routines so it is not uncommon to see women hanging their washing up or bathing their young children while testimonies are being given and heated arguments ensue. At one point a session is halted for a few minutes while a wedding party procession makes its way through the premises on its way to the reception
A minor subplot than bubbles beneath the political rhetoric features a young bar singer Melé (the stunning Aïssa Maïga) whose marriage to husband Chaka (Tiécoura Traoré) is slowly falling apart while their daughter becomes ill. Chaka is out of work and involved in an incident involving a gun but this is never explained or furthered at all.
It’s a little oblique but – to this reviewer at least – it seem the idea here is that Melé is representative of the “Western” ways which the court prosecutors are decrying, in that she is working a “glamorous” job while the man stays at home. Despite being all over the promotional materials Melé and her subplot hardly appears in the film, although her final scene in which she sings in the night club with tears streaming down her face is a poetically majestic one.
The beauty of this film is how the anger that Sissako – and presumably many other Africans – feels is palpable yet the tone and pace is quiet and restrained. None of the characters rant or rave or get angry, they all put their cases across eloquently and intelligently. The closest we get to hysteria is from an elderly man who seems to be incanting his opinion while a former school teacher is so distraught and broken that he cannot even speak when he is called to the stand.
While both sides of the argument are heard and given a fair hearing one can surmise with some confidence which side Sissako leans towards but this doesn’t make this any less a fascinating watch. The key points of issue are that the western principles of capitalism and privatisation may work in the west but they fail in Africa, while the opposition claim that the money is being misused by a corrupt government who are keen to swell their own coffers while everyone else suffers. Sound familiar?
As if to heighten the folly of the arguments made by both sides in the trial, Sissako throws in a surreal but scathing distraction midway through in the form of a crummily made low budget Western movie shown on TV, Death in Timbuktu, which stars Danny Glover (who co-produced Bamako) and Palestinian film director Elia Suleiman as part of a completely inept, multi-national cowboy gang who end up shooting each other, another allegorical message about who is really to blame for Africa’s woes.
With a largely non-professional cast to give this an air of authenticity, Sissako should be applauded for the inventive way in which he highlights what was then a national problem but is now a global one and does something we’d all like to do and bring the seemingly unaccountable to account for their actions. Don’t be put off by the subject matter, Bamako possesses an inherent magnetism that pulls you in from the start and holds you firmly in its grip for the duration.
A bold and scathing slice of world cinema that is both humbling and heroic.