Abderrahmane Sissako (2006)
Feb. 14-27 at the Film Forum
Bamako, a film about the effects of 25 years of structural adjustment on the Malian people, has been categorized as a drama and then criticized as didactic. The latter is so overwhelmingly true it is irrelevant; the viewer should understand that this is no drama in the traditional sense. True, there are a couple weakly realized plots in the background, such as the impending divorce of a beautiful lounge singer and her husband Chako, and the appearance of a detective who suspects Chako of murder. But the film’s main focus is a mock trial of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). The lawyers, judges and witnesses are real, and their speeches are not scripted. This is a glimpse into the Malian view, articulately argued in the French colonists’ tongue.
Most of the film is set in the courtyard of Sissako’s father’s house in a humble neighborhood of Bamako, the capital of Mali. As the trial unfolds, children play, adults gossip and do chores, a man lies in his sickbed and there is a wedding. Some are actors and others are members of Sissako’s own family. The fictional threads are an attempt to bring the abstract macro-politics of the trial down to the level of the everyday. Sissako succeeds not because of the flimsy narrative development, but because he captures a convincingly realistic snapshot of courtyard life. With the exception of a scene dramatizing the northbound exodus of a witness who lost his job due to IMF-imposed cuts (a scene in which a fellow refugee collapses in the Sahara), this film does not resort to the melodrama common to Western accounts of Africa. The people of Sissako’s courtyard are not destitute or whining. They are articulate and they are angry.
While Sissako recognizes the role of local elites in the ransacking of their own continent, he does not let the West off easy. A lawyer defending the World Bank argues that African countries should not be trusted to manage their own development because of corruption. To this, a witness responds that the rampant corruption is minor in comparison with the legal corruption of the West – the theft that has been the driving force behind its relations with Africa since the times of slavery. This corruption is so fundamental to the workings of capitalism itself that it is called business. Sissako noted that one witness said to him when discussing the West, “At least they’ll know that we know.” This film aims to show that Malians understand their plight, and, though they are powerless to take the World Bank to court in real life, they have not been broken.
While many of the arguments are similar to those made by Western critics of structural adjustment, the sense of the victims’ dignity that Sissako manages to convey would be difficult for a Western filmmaker to portray.
This dignity is evident when one of the witnesses declares that Africa is rich. She is a victim of her wealth, not her poverty; were she poor in resources, the West would leave her alone.