Bamako (PG)

Film

Drama

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Time Out says

Thu Oct 19 2006

Abderrahmane Sissako was born in Mauritania, grew up in Mali, studied film in the USSR and now lives much of the time in Paris – and so it’s hardly a surprise that his films take a global view of Africa: they offer the wisdom and passion of someone who is both insider and outsider. His last film, ‘Waiting for Happiness’, looked at the tragedy of exile to and from Mauritania in west Africa, and now his latest, ‘Bamako’, is nothing less than a screaming wake-up call to Africa and the rest of the world to recognise that the continent’s social, economic and political problems are inextricably tied to its relationships, past and present, with the rest of the world. It’s not an easy work. It’s brimming with ideas, its narrative is at points vague and even confusing, and sometimes it makes the biggest of points with the smallest of gestures – but unless you couldn’t care less about the subject matter (in which case ‘Rocky Balboa’ is still playing), it’s worth braving the unique approach of this remarkable and stirring film that shows once again that the best of African cinema is without genre and brims with intelligence and responsibility.

The idea is odd and brilliant. Sissako sets up a courtroom in the yard of a house in Bamako, the capital of Mali. It’s actually the house of his late father, but we don’t know that. A young couple live in the building – Mélé, a nightclub singer, and Chaka, who’s unemployed and unhappy – yet their daily existence remains largely in the background as witnesses pour into this space to give evidence on behalf of ‘Africa’, which is the plaintiff. Lawyers and judges wear robes and wigs: some speak on behalf of the continent; others launch a defence of the IMF and the World Bank, the international financial institutions that are on trial. The arguments are strong and moving – 50 million African children will die in the next five years; 3 million Africans will die of malaria in the next 12 months; and Africa’s debt stood at $220 billion in 2003. ‘Debt has brought Africa to her knees,’ says the prosecutor.

But ‘Bamako’ offers much more than a platform for strong arguments regarding poverty and debt. There are comments on apathy (‘The trial’s becoming annoying, when’s it going to end?’ asks a young man outside the court) and also, powerfully, on the inability of traditional institutions such as a courtroom even to represent all African opinion. One elderly witness, Zégué Bamba, is turned away for not understanding the system and he later returns to belt out a piercing, moving song to the court in a dialect that isn’t translated for us. The music and the confusion nevertheless speak volumes. One and all, the witnesses, whose statements were prepared by improvisation and later filmed like a documentary, have an electric presence. One man horrifies with a story of how he and 30 others tried to make a journey of exile from Mali to Spain, but the trip went horribly wrong and only ten survived, the rest dying in the heat of the Sahara. Images of hot ants curling in the sand deliver the point with simple poetry.

There’s humour on offer too; ‘Bamako’ is sharp satire as well as political drama. An interlude shows a brief ‘western’ – ‘Death in Timbuktu’ – in which six cowboys, among them Danny Glover and the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, ride cockily on horseback into an African village and indulge in murderous gunplay. It’s not entirely clear whether Sissako is having a dig at foreigners using Africa as a playground or African leaders themselves acting with fatal disregard for their people. Like much of ‘Bamako’, it’s pleasingly open to interpretation and relies as much on the viewer’s prejudice as Sissako’s intention. What’s never in doubt though is that, despite the superficial balance of the courtroom device, Sissako is firmly on the side of the prosecutor who demands ‘community service for mankind for all eternity’. In the mouth of Bono, such a plea would be laughable. Here, it simply can’t be ignored.
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