Bamako (2006)

Review #1,624

Director:  Abderrahmane Sissako
Cast:  Aïssa Maïga, Tiécoura Traoré, Maimouna Hélène Diarra
Plot:  Melé is a bar singer, her husband Chaka is out of work and the couple is on the verge of breaking up... In the courtyard of the house they share with other families, a trial court has been set up. 

Genre:  Drama 
Awards:  Official Selection (Cannes)
Runtime:  115 mins
Rating:  PG13 (passed clean) for brief nudity
International Sales:  Les Films du Losange

Beneath the fiery discourse over Africa’s socio-economic plight is a film so laidback that you wouldn’t believe that a work this intelligent could be effortlessly cool as well.  Bamako, the third fiction feature by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, is fascinating to watch in its depiction of a continent’s suffering through the eyes—or rather mouths—of lawyers and local witnesses who attest that their nation, Mali, is in dire straits, ruined by world financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that demand African nations pay off their debt from a huge portion of the money given to them for social and infrastructural development.  

Of course, these institutions are defended by legal counsels who accuse the witnesses of distorting the truth and that their clients are well-meaning, charitable organisations.  All these play out in a communal courtyard that has become a makeshift courtroom, its no-frills approach suggesting that legality is not just non-existent, but nonchalant as well in this part of the world.  

The air of nonchalance is best exemplified by a secondary narrative thread—of a bar singer and her unemployed husband and sick child.  She lives in this courtyard, moving in and out even as the court is in session.  She doesn’t seem to care about anything that comes out of the court proceedings.  Likewise, neighbours and strangers who idle outside of the courtyard are more bemused (or perhaps confused) over the heated exchanges.  

It is almost as if Sissako is hoping that we the audience would take special interest, because no one else seems to be caring.  This apathy can be infectious in that it takes a viewer of patient and inquisitive disposition to be truly invested in the meaning-making behind the film’s intent.  In other words, Sissako tries to build a sense of detachment towards the drama—and then counters it with several ‘surreal’ moments, notably a scene of an old man who interrupts the court by singing a song of lament (there are no English subtitles, and I believe Sissako’s intent is to draw out our universal capacity for compassion toward another regardless of language and culture).  

Perhaps more impressively, an earlier sequence sees Sissako radically employing genre tropes—the Western shootout—as a midway distraction to the hard truths of reality (in what appears to be a short film within a movie), though in all fairness, what the Malians are enduring are no less different than any lawless Western town ruined by an enculturation of systemic violence.   

Verdict:  This is a finely-tuned court-room/yard drama, mesmerising in its fiery discourse over Africa’s socio-economic plight as caused by world financial institutions, and revealing Sissako as a filmmaker not afraid of mixing intelligence with cool.




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