In an outdoor courtyard in the Malian city of Bamako a court hearing is taking place listening to witnesses give evidence: the plaintiff is Africa, the accused are the IMF, the World Bank and their associates. The latter institutions are accused of causing the poverty of many African countries, through their policies. Evidence for and against their guilt is heard from a variety of witnesses, including an elderly farmer intending to make a statement, who is told to wait; and a group who describe their danger-filled experiences of attempted emigration. Meanwhile, throughout the proceedings, the inhabitants continue their daily lives walking round or through the courtroom; a wedding takes place, cloth-dyers discuss colours, children care for other children, a man lies gravely ill. Outside the courtyard walls, people discuss events, philosophise on life, and consider rumours of a lost gun, while singer Mele’s relationship with her husband worsens and she leaves, taking her child. By the end of the day individual problems take centre stage resonating with the larger events discussed in the court including a violent conclusion as to the whereabouts of the gun.
“Words are something, they can seize you in your heart; it’s bad if you keep them inside./ The goat has its ideas but so does the hen. When you come for something you have to do it./ My words won’t remain within me.”
These responses from a farmer who has come to give his evidence, but is denied permission to do so, are shown to us during the preliminaries to the trial which forms the centre of Sissako’s film. His comments on the need to express your words even when space has not been made for them, placed in the earliest establishing position, before both the title and the credits, to reflect on events that follow, sets a strong opening position for this most politically committed, yet most cinematic, film. It also provides one of several circularities, which enclose and comment on the trial scenes; as, true to his intention, the farmer speaks again towards the end of the film, no longer prepared to wait for permission to give voice to his views. This takes the form of a lengthy cry and chant, in untranslated dialect, not understood by the large majority of his listeners, on screen or off, but nevertheless a highly eloquent protest and lament, a completely appropriate comment and addition to the court’s deliberations.
Commentators and reviewers have stated that this film defies viewer expectations; perhaps this is because, with potent cinematic boldness, Sissako has used the fantasy potential of film to stage an impossible confrontation; no less than a symbolic trial at which the defendants are the World Bank and the IMF, accused by Africa itself, in the person of witnesses, mostly people from real life, who are cross-examined on issues of imperial exploitation, neo-colonialism and globalisation, or ‘pauperization, rather than poverty’, as one of them articulately insists. Equally unexpectedly, the pomp and procedure of the trial takes place in the lowly circumstances of the courtyard central to a small African community, who carry on their daily lives around and within the trial proceedings, some listening or taking part, some ignoring or taking the opportunity to make a swift profit from the participants. This remarkable form is extended further by apparent diversions; the re-enacting of a desert journey, even a film within the film, in the showing of a spoof cowboy TV programme. In addition, we observe the events of specific characters’ lives, notably that of singer Mele’s fracturing relationship with her husband, a man lying close to death, women dyeing cloth, and the machinations outside the courtyard wall regarding the rumoured disappearance of a gun. Sissako’s skilful orchestration involves both scripted and improvised speech, producing a crammed immediacy of mise en scène, in which each element echoes and reflects on the others; a form which reflects day-to-day realities to produce a formalised politics in itself.
This is a remarkable turnaround for a filmmaker previously considered apolitical, one whose earlier films, notably that best known in the West, the influential Waiting For Happiness, consider themes crucial to African experience, those of exile and return, but with a reflective autobiographical slant, and a slower pacing closer to real time. Sissako’s filmic background as a student for six years at the VGIK film school in the Soviet Union can be seen echoed in his use of montages of facial close-ups, the long take and highly considered arrangements of objects and framing of the shot, reminiscent of the poetics of Tarkovsky.1 Similar effects can be discerned in Bamako; in the opening shots that precede the farmer incident, in which the camera follows, from behind and at a distance, a figure walking towards the horizon, as gradually the light lifts, dawn breaks and the figure reaches his destination, eventually revealed to be the mud walls of the open-air court; a quietist reflective opening in total contrast to the bustle and anger that the walls will later contain. Similarly, the camera later dwells on the still close-ups of heads of listeners, or loiterers, within and without the court, emphasising the beauty, colour and form of appearance and expressions. This attention to framing is particularly evident regarding the doorways, those leading us into the daily lives of the villagers, and particularly that which gives, or bars, entrance to the court itself. But in Bamako the dreamy aspect of locations and wanderings has been superseded by a more political tone: these elements have an additional function, bearing symbolic as well as real connotations regarding the opening or closing of access to power.
One further key influence can be seen in the putting together of this mix; in interview2 Sissako draws attention to the shared experience of lack of cinematic, and political, access, for both the African nations and those of South America, situations which have given rise to the creation of Third Cinema films,3 using the device of ‘imperfect cinema’, less polished or concerned with maintaining cinematic seamlessness, in which the illusion of filmic apparatus is not allowed to produce a comforting illusion, rather the process is exposed, producing a more political immediacy. To return to the opening sequence, as the figure arrives at the courtyard wall, daylight reveals he is dwarfed by the cinematic and sound apparatus being installed for relaying the court proceedings; in a later scene one of the earliest arrivals within the court is a journalist with a film camera, while the functioning or non-functioning of the technology, especially that of sound, is constantly monitored by the courtyard listeners.
Such deconstructions and distanciations of the filmic process are, of course, also loaded with other connotations; those of Western art cinema, potently influential regarding much of African cinema, due to the post-colonial continuation of a stake and of funding from the French. The problematic nature of this presence, an underlying issue for contemporary African filmmakers, has led to a concern to create other platforms.4 In Bamako it is approached obliquely through Sissako’s interrogation, and acknowledgement, of this past, echoing the techniques and methods of the most radically experimental and explicitly political of the French New Wave filmmakers, Jean-Luc Godard, in an appropriation of the structuring of his 1972 film, Tout Va Bien. Where Godard uses the symbolic structure of a two-storey factory to play out the power struggles between factory workers at ground level, and their bosses on the level above, Sissako ratchets up the irony, and the political potency of the symbolic setting, by translating this with a doubled edge; in the dual-purpose courtyard the disparities of the empowered and the powerless are twice demonstrated, in both the discourses and evidence of the court, and in the surrounding villagers whose lives reflect this state of affairs. Sissako has created a formal double jeopardy of disempowerment, building on that of Godard, while keeping the symbolism ‘real’, in the localised and differentiated lives on view.