In Bamako, African filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako literally brings global politics to his own backyard. The writer-director puts the World Bank and International Monetary Fund on trial for crimes against African society, and has this civil action unfold in the courtyard behind his family's home in the Hamdallaye district of Mali's capital.
This audacious concept works because Sissako grounds the proceedings in the everyday life of this Bamako neighborhood. Witnesses are called on behalf of the plaintiff (the citizens of sub-Saharan Africa), and as they give impassioned testimony about the economic and social impact of repaying massive loans and the policy of structural adjustment (privatization and free market programs) that are attached to that money, residents of the compound go about their daily business: Fabric is dyed and hung on clotheslines; a wedding party casually crashes the proceedings; bored unemployed men wonder when the trial will end.
Bamako is filmed with an elegant simplicity that masks its complex political agenda. While capturing the rhythms of contemporary Mali, Sissako uses every detail to drive home a collective anger and frustration at what witnesses decry as a policy of enforced poverty.
The choice of language demonstrates the social divide. French is the lingua franca of the court, and Malians testifying in French are part of an intellectual elite being made redundant by what a French attorney terms predatory capitalism. The harrowing account of a Malian émigré ejected from Europe who survived a forced exodus across the Sahara is recalled in Bambara. A Christian revival service, with its forced jubilation and air of desperation, is conducted in English, which is also the primary language of the ultraviolent Western Death in Timbuktu shown on television.
Born in Mauritania and raised in Mali, director Sissako attended film school in Moscow, and he's fashioned Bamako as a lesson in didactic cinema. The courtyard courtroom, populated by actual attorneys and the Malian disenfranchised, functions as an African soapbox, a stirring fictional construct to rally the oppressed and chide Westerners for their harmful interference.
In a film that uses silence and Malian music to great emotional effect, the barrage of accusations and recriminations express defeat as much as defiance. Bamako doesn't hesitate to demonize, and is unlikely to convert (or be seen by) those who don't already agree with its viewpoint. Which means Abderrahmane Sissako may end up using all his passion to simply preach to the choir.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 7 p.m. on Friday, Saturday-Sunday, April 13-15.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].