[DEBATE] : (Fwd) Bamako - does anyone in SA have this film, please?
pbond at mail.ngo.za
Fri Mar 2 07:39:44 GMT 2007
February 14, 2007
MOVIE REVIEW | 'BAMAKO'
World Bank in the Docket, Charged With Africa's Woes
By A. O. SCOTT
I have never seen a film quite like "Bamako," Abderrahmane Sissako's
seething, complicated and disarmingly beautiful investigation of
Africa's social, economic and human crises. The agony of Africa has
been explored, and exploited, in several high-profile recent
documentaries and fictional features, from "God Grew Tired of Us,"
about the "lost boys" of Sudan, to "Blood Diamond" and "The Constant
Gardener." "Bamako" is something different: a work of cool
intelligence and profound anger, a long, dense, argument that is also
a haunting visual poem.
Mr. Sissako, a Malian director whose previous films include "Life on
Earth" and "Waiting for Happiness," does not try to engage the pity of
the audience through sad stories or terrible images. Rather, he
tackles the central question of the film — have the ostensible good
intentions of the West, in particular the World Bank and similar
institutions, contributed to the impoverishment and demoralization of
the continent? — calmly and systematically, though with evident
His conceit is at once simple and daring, straightforward and more
than a little surreal. In a courtyard in a poor section of Bamako,
Mali's capital, magistrates in robes sit at a table, taking notes and
shuffling through files as they listen to testimony from witnesses and
advocates. On trial is not a person but the World Bank — which is to
say, global capitalism — itself.
Since Mali, a former French colony, follows French judicial customs,
and since the French language is well suited to abstraction, the
arguments are not always strictly empirical. Allegations of conspiracy
are challenged with demands for proof, but the most eloquent testimony
comes in the patient, angry speeches of ordinary Africans who step
forward to lament what they see as the cruel consequences of debt
servicing and privatization: emigration, loss of control over
infrastructure and natural resources, rampant political corruption and
a precipitously declining standard of living.
Some of the judges are black, some white, and the two teams of lawyers
are also mixed, perhaps to suggest that the stakes in the trial cannot
simply be reduced to Africa versus the West. Much of the prosecution's
oratory may be provocative to Western ears, and may call forth
counterarguments. Surely the misrule and war that menace so much of
the continent are not solely the fault of foreign powers and
But such provocation seems to be part of Mr. Sissako's project. He
wants the discussion of Africa, which has frequently been conducted in
terms established in Washington, London, Paris and Brussels, to
include African voices, and not only those of the local elite. He also
insists — by means of his visual techniques as much as through the
words of his characters — that the central human facts of the
situation cannot be ignored.
Like "An Inconvenient Truth," "Bamako" can be described as didactic,
which simply means that it overtly tries to use film to teach. But
there is also another dimension to the movie, an attention to the
details of daily life in Bamako that lends it extraordinary richness
and gravity. As the lawyers press forward with their eloquence —
occasionally showboating or lapsing into procedural pettifoggery — the
camera wanders through the courtyard and beyond, taking note of the
small interactions between men and women, the old and the young, the
busy and the idle. People work, read, chat and doze. They listen
intently to the trial, which is broadcast over loudspeakers, or else
they go about their routines as the speeches play like background
An oblique, delicate and sad story also threads its way quietly
through "Bamako," concerning a singer named Melé (Aïssa Maïga); her
husband, Chaka (Tiécoura Traoré); and their young daughter. While
their destinies are linked with the themes under consideration in the
trial, these characters are not so much symbols or ciphers as
reminders of the almost incomprehensible gulf between the general and
A less confident, more facile director might have tried to force a
connection between macroeconomics and a single family's plight, but
Mr. Sissako's sensibility is too subtle for such shortcuts. Melé and
Chaka are beautiful and dignified; Ms. Maïga's face and carriage make
you grateful for the existence of cinema. But they are hardly the
noble, suffering Africans of well-intentioned Hollywood caricature.
Not that subtlety is everything. Mr. Sissako is trying to make a
point, and to use whatever cinematic means he has at hand to bring it
home. The most striking of these is a film within the film, a
mock-spaghetti western starring Danny Glover and the Palestinian
filmmaker Elia Suleiman that turns the prosecution's brief into a
bloody allegory. If you saw gunmen killing women and children on the
street, or executing schoolteachers because there were too many, you
would be appalled and enraged.
Those are Mr. Sissako's sentiments exactly, and his ability to channel
them into a fierce and unforgettable piece of political art makes
"Bamako" necessary viewing.
Opens today in Manhattan.
Written (in French and Bambara, with English subtitles) and directed
by Abderrahmane Sissako; director of photography, Jacques Besse;
edited by Nadia Ben Rachid; production designer, Mahamadou Kouyaté;
produced by Denis Freyd and Mr. Sissako; released by New Yorker Films.
At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the
Americas, South Village. Running time: 118 minutes. This film is not
WITH: Aïssa Maïga (Melé), Tiécoura Traoré (Chaka), Hélène Diarra
(Saramba), Habib Dembélé (Falaï), Djénéba Koné (Chaka's Sister),
Hamadoun Kassogué (Journalist) and Hamèye Mahalmadane (Presiding
February 11, 2007
One Angry African Puts Big Money on Trial
By DENNIS LIM
ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"Through art you can invent the impossible." Mr. [Abderrahmane]
Sissako, 45, said in an interview here at the Rotterdam International
Film Festival, where he was the subject of a retrospective. "It's
obviously an improbable scenario: to put on trial these two
institutions that nobody can hold accountable. But that's the point.
In this little courtyard we make the impossible possible."
To staff the tribunal in "Bamako," Mr. Sissako sought out real judges
and lawyers, whom he armed with extensive research material. He also
assembled a cross section of witnesses, from childhood friends to a
former minister of culture, all appearing as themselves.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The primary setting of "Bamako" holds great significance for Mr.
Sissako, whose work often incorporates elements of autobiography. "I
couldn't have made a film like this in just any courtyard," he said.
"It had to be this one, where I grew up. Shooting there I felt
protected. I felt I was allowed to make mistakes."
Thanks to Mr. Sissako's father, an engineer, there was always a
bustling communal atmosphere at the compound. "My father was the only
one in his family who went to school," he said. "He felt a
responsibility to take in the children of relatives and friends who
were less well off. Usually there would be about 30 people in the
house." The courtyard, he said, "is Malian society in miniature."
Mr. Sissako was born in Mauritania but grew up in Mali, his father's
home country. As a teenager he bristled against the oppressive school
system. "I was never a good student, and I started to get militant
ideas because I wanted to overthrow the school," he said.
His revolutionary views grew more focused when he encountered the
writings of Che Guevara, African-American civil rights activists like
W. E. B. Dubois, and anticolonialist authors like Frantz Fanon and
Aimé Césaire. He was also galvanized by the global anti-apartheid
movement and caught up in a growing resentment toward the military
dictatorship in Mali. By his late teens he was organizing student
strikes. "It was a dangerous time," he said. "Friends of mine were in
prison. One was dead."
At 19, he moved to Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, where his
mother was living. Homesick for Mali, unfamiliar with the local
dialect, he found unexpected solace at the Soviet cultural center,
where he spent his days playing table tennis, learning Russian and
reading Dostoevsky. He ended up at the prestigious film academy in
Moscow. After nearly a decade there he moved to Paris in the early
1990s. His nomadic existence strongly informed his worldview. He found
his voice as a poet of displacement, forever grappling with the
bafflement of exile and the sorrow of the impossible return.
In "Waiting for Happiness" (2002), set in a Mauritanian coastal town
that functions as a way station between Africa and the West, one of
the characters is an alienated young man visiting his mother before he
leaves for Europe. In "Life on Earth" (1998) Mr. Sissako plays a
version of himself, an expatriate returning from Paris to Mali on the
eve of the millennium. One line in that film, from a letter that the
young man writes to his father, sums up the ambivalent yearning at the
heart of his work: "Is what I learn far from you worth what I forget
about us?" (Both films were shown at the New York Film Festival. New
Yorker Films will release "Waiting for Happiness" on DVD later this
The overtly political "Bamako" represents a move away from
autobiography. "I was getting tired of drawing on my own life," Mr.
Sissako said. "There's a natural end to that process."
But the explicit subject of "Bamako" had been the implicit themes of
his other films: the legacy of colonialism and the lopsided
relationship between the first and third worlds. Even more than the
average courtroom procedural, it is a film about the power of the
spoken word, giving voice to those normally denied that privilege.
It also, however, demonstrates the limits of language. Called to the
stand, one of the witnesses finds himself unable to speak. "Truth
cannot always be expressed in words," Mr. Sissako said. "It can also
be silent, and you cannot say no to those who are silent."
In the movie's emotional climax, another witness forgoes conventional
testimony and sings a full-throated lament. The scene is left
unsubtitled, but the sentiments could not be clearer. "He was singing
in a dialect from the south of Mali," Mr. Sissako said. "Even most of
the people in the courtyard didn't understand it, but we were all very
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The African group of the International Monetary Fund has seen it, Mr.
Sissako said, but he has yet to receive any feedback. Last month he
showed his film in Bamako, in front of the courtyard where it was
shot. Thousands turned up. Still, insofar as the movie is a broadside,
its designated audience is a Western one. Mr. Sissako recalled the
advice of an old friend, a Malian judge: "He told me, 'Don't think
this film will change anything. But you have to make it. Perhaps then
they will know that we know.'"
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