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  • PG
  • Drama
  • 2006
  • 115 mins

Bamako

Bamako

Synopsis

African society bears witness as the rest of the world is put on trial in Abderrahmane Sissako's searing documentary fable.

About

In Bamako, Mali, a large compound of earthen buildings arranged around a gated courtyard is home to a variety of families. Nightclub singer Melé (Maïga) and her unemployed husband Chaka (Traoré) are quietly drifting apart and pondering the future of their young daughter Ina. As his neighbours pray towards Mecca, Chaka attends a charismatic Christian church, but he is also learning Hebrew in the faint hope that it will lead to a job as a guard at an embassy that as yet does not exist. Next door, Saramba (Diarra) supervises a team of cloth dyers while worrying about her blood pressure. Another neighbour lies in bed with an unspecified illness. There are weddings, funerals and everything in between, and all the inhabitants get their water from the same well, making the house a microcosm of African society.

So it makes a sort of sense that, as these folk go about their daily business, set up in their yard is a trial court where witnesses line up before a robed panel to testify about the crimes perpetrated by the World Bank, the IMF and other international financial institutions against the continent and peoples of Africa.

Here the ravages of colonialism, economic slavery, 'pauperisation', exploitation, globalisation, hypocrisy, economic slavery, mass privatisation, asset stripping and cultural imperialism are discussed, dissected and condemned in an excoriating succession of speeches. Writer Aminata Traoré, failed refugee Madou Keita, intellectual Georges Keita and civil servant Assa Badiallo Souko each articulate cogent arguments for their case, but just as compelling is Zégué Bamba's traditional song of lamentation, or even Samba Diakité's painful testimony, consisting in a simple assertion that he is a former teacher, followed by his deafeningly disconsolate silence.

Indeed, silence is at the heart of Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako. Chaka's inability to talk to his wife mirrors the muted status of a nation reduced to impotence, hopelessness and shame by centuries of colonial oppression and decades of crippling debt. Yet at the same time, the film gives voice to people and ideas rarely allowed to speak, and allows Africa its day in court - even if it is a court whose grim dignity is its only power.

There is no denying that Bamako is a feature-length polemic, but what rescues the film from being unadulterated agitprop is its strange blend of documentary realism and political parable, reminiscent of the trial scenes in Peter Watkins' Punishment Park (1971). Here similarly the hearing is built around an ensemble of real lawyers and genuine witnesses encouraged by the director to discuss the most up-to-the minute real world issues and to vent their personal resentments - and yet these scenes are the film's most fanciful element, conjuring up a formal international court in the middle of a busy domestic space in an impoverished Mali neighbourhood. The constant background presence of the house's residents, sometimes listening and sometimes ignoring the proceedings, makes the sense of absurdity all the more palpable, even if their daily vicissitudes serve also as a graphic illustration of the points in question at the trial.

In his testimony, Georges Keita criticises the 'rape' of the African imagination by America's cultural hegemony. Accordingly, Sissako has risen to the challenge of finding his own cinematic language for Bamako, whose eschewal of conventional narrative forms or melodramatic dialogue qualifies it as the very opposite of a mainstream Hollywood movie.

One surreal sequence in the film becomes the exception that proves the rule: as the residents gather around a television set in the courtyard at night, the screen fills with 'Death In Timbuktu', an oater parody that transposes the rapacious violence of white colonial cowboys and their black collaborators to a new African frontier. Like so much in Bamako, this constitutes humour of the blackest kind.

Amidst all its recriminations and condemnations, Bamako also offers a utopian vision of a world where the people of Africa are treated with justice and humanity by the north, and allowed to regain both self-determination and self-respect. Yet the film ends, abruptly and affectingly, not with such dreams for the future, but with the desperate nightmare of the present. For Sissako is all too aware that while it is important to break the silence, that is never enough in itself to bring real justice.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Jean-Paul Boiré, Hamadoun Kassogué, Hamèye Malhamadane, William Bourdon, Maimouna Hélène Diarra, Djénéba Koné, Habib Dembélé, Tiécoura Traoré, Roland Rappaport
  • Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
  • Writer: Abderrahmane Sissako
  • Producer: Denis Freyd, Abderrahmane Sissako
  • Photographer: Jacques Besse
  • Composer: Akwaba

In a nutshell

Born of indignation, Bamako bears devastating witness to the iniquities of free trade and globalisation from a Malian perspective.

by Anton Bitel

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