Saturday, September 22, 2007


In a sleepy corner of Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa, residents mill about. Children are playing; some are being breast-fed. A beautiful Malian woman leaves her house, where her little daughter is suffering from a fever, and goes to sing at a local nightclub. A young man lies in a nearby building, deathly ill but with no medical care. And in the midst of all this, something unusual is occurring. There’s an open-air trial being conducted in a little enclosed town square. Judges sit at a table; there are lawyers and witnesses. Gradually we find out who is on trial: the World Bank. The plaintiff is the African people.
I'm describing a film called
Bamako, and it’s directed by the extraordinarily talented Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako. Now, I would expect a film in which a symbolic trial of the World Bank takes place, with impassioned speeches on both sides of the issues around globalization and African impoverishment, would be contrived, didactic, or in any case difficult to sit through. But not at all. Sissako’s method of placing this highly charged rhetorical event in the middle of what amounts to a village atmosphere creates a compelling and realistic link between oratory and ordinary life.
Most of the men seem alienated or listless, sitting with heads down outside the court, listening to the trial on loudspeakers, sometimes having laconic and rather intriguing conversations. The women are more active
dyeing cloth, weaving, handling the food and the childcare. Sissako is even confident enough to be absurd: at one point the kids watch a mock-Western on TV starring Danny Glover in which the sheriff and the outlaws shoot it out but the only people who get killed seem to be civilians, which in itself is a symbol of the situation in Africa vis-à-vis the West.
The trial itself is the film’s centerpiece. On the plaintiff’s side we have eloquent denunciations by a writer, a professor, and others, talking about the tremendous burden of debt hanging on the neck of Africa, how it relates to colonialism, how the World Bank’s policies only reinforce servitude and the shattering of traditional communities, and how privatization degrades Africa’s right to its own land, water, education and health. Sissako also gives the devil his due, so to speak, in the person of the lawyer representing the World Bank, who presents the kind of counter-arguments you’d expect, credible if not humane, claiming good motives, economic progress and concessions on debt
notwithstanding the occasional intervention of a local goat, who seems to want to give the lawyer a good butt with his horns.
This is a polemical film, a film of outrage about what has been done and continues to be done by the prosperous north enriching itself at the expense of the south, and the tremendous cost in human life and dignity. But the careful creation of atmosphere, the film’s accurate feel for the rhythms of life, and the fiercely intelligent script, ensure that it doesn’t just leave you feeling angry, but wiser, more determined, more empowered.
Bamako is an extraordinary achievement, and I urge you to see it.

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