As an African-condition film teeming with genuine African viewpoints, “Bamako” is a rarity on these shores, and, for that reason alone, this docu-toned drama warrants attention. But this potential cinematic soapbox triumphs, period. Courtesy of top-notch Mali-bred writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako, humanity and poetry stirringly enrich the message.
Aiming to give everyday Africans a voice in the global discussion, purportedly conducted on their behalf, of the woes plaguing Africa, Sissako (“Waiting for Happiness”) presents his politically charged story in the form of an indictment — a mock trial — brought by the African people against First World economic powers. The setting is a courtyard in Bamako, Mali, where robed judges hear testimony from plaintiffs who accuse the defendants — the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the capitalist mind-set — of ravaging Africa’s resources and imposing aid conditions that have incapacitated the continent.
The witnesses are a varied, fervent lot — a writer, a teacher, and a farmer, among them — who address issues such as gargantuan loan interest and “structural adjustment” policies whose consequences include illiteracy and infant mortality. Fifty million African children will die over the next five years, one says.
Meanwhile, private lives transpire nearby. A sad-looking singer (Aissa Maiga) and her unemployed husband (Tiecoura Traore) are splitting. Women dye fabric. A couple marry. And in a passage in which Sissako exhibits an entertainer’s as well as an instructor’s sensibility, kids watch a spaghetti Western. Danny Glover and filmmaker Elia Suleiman play members of an international cowboy gang that shoots up an African town.
True, there’s didacticism here. Also, the courtroom material could use a trim.
But you won’t find a false note, or a blood diamond, in this film. And as characters articulately, passionately, constructively, and complexly (the issue of African culpability is also tackled) speak their mind, it coalesces into a vibrant, resonant picture of African predicaments and a contagiously angry look at the horrendous injustices that wealthy folk will forever wreak on the world’s have-nots.
Additionally, this is artful, poetic, generally friendly cinema. Like Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, Sissako seems less anti-West than pro-Africa and conveys both big- and small-picture majesty. Even a clothesline appears significant.
As for a court verdict, it’s refreshingly not the point. Sikasso clearly views the defendants as guilty, and the thrill of this film stems from the chance to hear the whole of what happens in this rather marvelous courtroom.
Starring Aissa Maiga, Tiecoura Traore, Danny Glover
Written and directed by Abderrahmane Sissako
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes