This film must be a miracle.Never have I seen a film which gives us hard arguments and the soft context simultaneously.That Africa is a continent brutally sinned against is very well known and its case has been made eloquently by many scholars and documentary filmmakers.Bamako will not tell you anything factually new if you have been following the news about Africa. But it will build a rock solid bridge of empathy and emotion to those arguments, if you give this film a chance to speak to you.
Cinema once flourished in Africa till it became a casualty of war. Most of the filmmaking, distribution and exhibition infrastructure was wiped out.When I landed in Lagos, Nigeria in 2003, I was disturbed to find that there was not a single movie theatre in that city of 15 million people.Consequently cinema as a medium of expression was denied to the Africans except for sporadic sparks like the films of Osmane Sembene, who as far back as 1975, made the seminal Xala, which used razor-sharp wit to expose the dangers of power being deliberately handed to a corrupt clique by the departing colonialists.
Mr Sissako uses the conceit of a mock trial where the Bretton Woods institutions, namely the IMF and World Bank are in the dock, and the prosecution represents not just Mali but the entire continent of Africa.The lawyers and judges are a mix of both black and white people on both sides of the argument.But the stroke of genius on the directors part is not to stage this trial in a courtroom but in an ordinary courtyard of a home.As the trial progresses, people go about the business of life in a dispassionate way.Sometime the trial proceedings provide a voice over to the drama of life with a loudspeaker hanging outside the courtyard.People listen idly with vacant expressions or sometimes undo the wiring to silence it.Had the film focussed entirely on the trial it would have become a docudrama but the use of exquisite sub-plots which instead of telling stories convey a state of mind, transform the material into supercharged political poetry.
A man learning Hebrew in the hope that one day Israel will open an embassy there and he will be its first security guard, a farmer at the trial who sings in an obscure dialect (deliberately not subtitled) to convey his problems, a macabre dream of a bag full of the heads of heads of states which all look identical, are all casually and seamlessly built into the fractured narrative.The white lawyer arguing for the IMF buys fake sunglasses from a hawker who tells him that its a genuine Gucci. The lawyer for a moment shows his greed that he may be about to strike a genuine bargain.
The most interesting visuals are that of a young woman, Melé (Aïssa Maïga) and her husband, Chaka (Tiécoura Traoré)who live in the same compound where the trial is happening. Melé works as a singer in a nightclub which the élite of Mali frequent.After her morning bath, just as the trial is about to start, and the judges have taken their position and the courtyard is full of people, she comes out and proudly gets her dress buttoned up at the back.She is a woman who is using her sexuality and a beautiful singing voice to her advantage but we see her pain as she dances in the arms of a businessman.She came back a third time to move me to tears with her singing, as she performed with tears streaming down her face.
Mr Sissako also uses the device of a film within a film to make an interesting point and up the cinematic appeal.He stages a spaghetti western with a posse of bandits rampaging through a village.They shoot a teacher down because the place has one too many.This is outrageous. So why are we not outraged by how cheap an African life is? Of these and many other haunting images is this very unique film made up of.
Bamako is a story with a clear parallel in India. Our moneylenders in rural areas ruined small farmers by lending to them at absurd interest rates and taking their thumb prints on documents they could neither read nor understand. Similarly the loans from the developed world came to Africa through the Bretton Woods Institutions and their repayment became a fatal millstone around the neck of Africa. As the film points out the greatest insult hurled at Africa is that there is a corrupt gene in the people, which is simply an obnoxious form of racial profiling.The lawyer pleading on behalf of Africa asks for the following sentence – “Community service in perpetuity for all humanity”.There is no better manifesto for humanism.
Bamako involves some work from the viewer.My task was easier because I have worked in Africa and seen much of what is depicted at close quarters.Consequently my rewards are also very rich. Bamako provides a very big and rich window into Africa- if one is interested.The best part of the film is its glorious Africanness. At no point does the director back down and try to make this maddening premise more palatable.
Looking at Africa within the conventional framework of global finance, and muddying the waters with fake compassion, causes grave harm.It is obvious that colonialism has been replaced by economic imperialism.If Africa is cursed, it is by us and nobody else.The Chinese seem to have stepped into the shoes of the colonial powers and Africa is the testing ground for Chinese economic imperialism. All cinema is political, Bamako raises the stakes infinitely high, and the bar for filmmaking in-general, in the process.
# DVDs(3 nos) of this film are available at the Library at the Esplanade, Singapore.The place is a treasure trove of great cinema.