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Bamako is the capital of Mali, a landlocked country in Saharan Africa. It is also the setting of the third feature-length narrative film written and directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. Born in neighboring Mauritania to a Malian father, it wasn’t long before his family emigrated to Mali, where Sissako would grow up. Bamako, the film, you will not be surprised to learn, is a deeply personal and profound yet societally conscious piece of work.
Melé (Aïssa Maïga) is a singer in a bar. As she heads to work, a court hearing of sorts occurs in what seems to be her backyard. The area is highly walled off, with access available from a single gate. A guard admits people whose names are on a list or people who can afford to pay him. Kids play in the dirt; a goat is tied to a post. The air looks hot and thick, bugs flying in and out of small jetstreams created by the electric fans around the spare courtyard. Life seems to loll on as debates tamely rage over Africa’s place in the modern world. It’s a perplexing (for this white westerner, anyway) mashup of denizens that doesn’t immediately add up.
Bamako toys with the structure of a narrative film and what that structure “should” be. Jumping from courtroom procedural to drama and suddenly to a diegetic Hollywood western, complete with title cards announcing the arrival of Danny Glover. (An executive producer on Bamako.) The film within the film, Death in Timbuktu, makes local children watching it laugh, but they’re laughing with the villains, it seems, rather than the heroes. We get another view of Melé working at the bar. These sudden departures from the central hearings remind us of the rich lives and culture that are always in play, despite what may be happening in an ad-hoc courtyard. Are all of the events we witness meant to be literal? At times the film feels dreamlike. I cannot say one way or another with any sureness, but the impression the events leave is lasting.
If you do any additional research on this film, you’ll see the crying visage of Aïssa Maïga strewn across the internet as the primary image representing the movie. I believe this to be a bit of a curveball in providing a whole idea of what this film will entail. While the symbolism is essential to the story, and the image is probably appealing to a specific demographic of film-festival-loving cinephiles, Bamako is the first-of-its-kind African courtroom drama I’ve seen. The lack of this being communicated via promotional material is a shame. You might ask: who is on trial in an African courtroom drama? The world.
The film’s depictions of debate regarding Africa-at-large on the world stage, mentions of social programs, mass transit, George W. Bush, and African power are gripping. There are two ‘actors’ in this film that I especially want to highlight: Actual lawyers Aïssata Tall Sall and William Bourdon. They play themselves, and the result is astounding. Sissako seems to understand that you could let Tall Sall and Bourdon go off in their areas of expertise: African empowerment. It is enough to make a scene work, even a lengthy one. No additional ingredients are needed.
The film concludes with the resolution of a story that had been playing imperceptibly in the background of the debates, its meaning just barely within reach. The story burrows into the mind and refuses to let go. What could have been done? Who is at fault? At the fore, the film crescendos to an end with increasingly fiery speeches indicting the roles that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund play in contributing to, rather than aiding, Mali and Africa’s multiple crises. The careful camera work amplifies the power of these speeches, showing us a wide berth of African citizens as they listen in; we see that despite the precision and logic deployed in making arguments before the court, there is catharsis, acknowledgment of grief, and maybe even hope. Hope that someday there will be healing; in the eyes and hearts of Africans.
Written and Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako
Bambara, English, and French
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
And just like that, August in Africa comes to a close. Let’s run back the countries we paid visits to:
Not bad! Now seems like a great time to recommend a newsletter that has become an invaluable part of my reading diet: Proximities by Barry Malone. It is a free newsletter that releases every day and tells consequential current news stories from under-reported places all around the world. Many of the countries featured over the past month on Movie Night have been featured in releases from Proximities, and reading it has deepened my appreciation for the people and places we’re seldomly prompted to think about by major news outlets. I hope you’ll give it a look.
See you in September!
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