Alongside these European strands there can be discerned African filmic influences: Sissako, like all contemporary African filmmakers, must negotiate the towering presence of the ‘father’ of committed political filmmaking in Africa, the social realist work of the late Ousmane Sembene. Diawara has pointed out5 that in Sissako’s early films, the realist strand differs from that of Sembene, being subsumed by the poetic and aesthetic effects of his cinematic techniques. There is nevertheless an element of the documentary and autobiographical: in Bamako an instance is the telling evidence of the desert-walkers, who recount the horrors of their attempt at emigration. But the film is not confined by a single model of what African political film should be; and in a refusal of this, typical of the New Wave of African film of which Sissako has become a standard bearer, realist techniques are not the only method used. Sissako has added an overlay of the poetic and the playful, techniques more reminiscent of a contrasting major African filmmaker, also showing European influences, Djibril Diop Mambety.6 This is evident in the doubly symbolic world created by the court/courtyard; it can also be seen in the apparent diversions from this world, notably in the parodic referentiality of the spoof cowboy TV film. Titled ‘Death in Timbuktu’, this follows the comic generic exploits of a white and a black cowboy, roles taken by Danny Glover and Elia Suleiman, as they ride in to shoot up the town, with astonishing success, wiping out several innocent passers-by, concerned only with their own prowess and gain. Sissako has commented on this addition, that it provides the viewer with a break in which to assimilate more serious material, while also underlining the overall themes of violent exploitation.7 A similar function is performed by the fictional narrative following the disintegrating relationship of Mele and her husband Chaka, which is threaded through the other events. Mele provides a further enclosing circularity; her performance as a nightclub singer serves to open the film on an upbeat note, while at its close her singing is performed through tears. While this is evidently due to her personal life, it serves equally well as a comment on the state of affairs which the film as a whole reveals; another instance of the doubly functioning technique which Sissako employs.
Some Western commentators have found Sissako’s methods overly didactic and the case he presents one-sided, suggesting8 he drowns out the very voices of those to whom he intends to give a platform and that the fictional characterisations such as Mele are underdeveloped. But this drawing together of multiple, lightly drawn elements to parallel the more intense evidences of the court gives a further dimension where fact and fiction, reality and play, act together, and in which aspects are suggestive rather than worked through. This can apply to the fictional storylines as well as to the dispersed courtyard events and the more discursive debates; as is witnessed by the distanced and ambiguous denouement of the lost gun strand. It is a technique which can provide an opaque open-endedness of outcomes. In contrast, the proceedings of the court, despite the Western set-up as a forum of impartiality, is closer to the African model of ‘Truth and Reconciliation’, 9 providing for acts of truth-telling and witness, intended ultimately to serve as a redress for injustice, and perhaps as a preliminary to a more positive way forward. Sissako comments10 that a sense of universality, of the ‘other’ as not very different, is stronger in Africa than the West, also the sense that injustice contaminates us all. Bamako’s multiple stranding brings its variety of influences together in a potent mix; but ultimately the film’s focus is firmly on the necessary witness of ‘words that can seize you in your heart’, and the prevention of their being spoken as destructive to both speaker and audience.
1. For a detailed examination of these techniques in Waiting For Happiness, see Manthia Diawara, African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics, New York, Prestel, 2010, pp. 105–12.
2. Bamako DVD extra, Interview.
3. Underlining this, the South American experimental filmmaker Elia Suleiman plays a cowboy in the spoof Western.
4. Sissako is a member of La Guild des Cineastes, promoting African filmmakers in Europe.
5. African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics, p. 100f.
6. Seen for example in Mambety’s best-known film, Touki Bouki (1975).
7. Bamako DVD extra, Interview.
8. Stella Papamichael (2007) BBC Movies. [online] Available at www.bbc.co.uk/films/ 2007/02/19/bamako_2007_review.shtml (accessed 13 April 2012).
9. See also N. Frank Ukadlke, ‘Calling to Account’, Sight and Sound, February 2007.
10.Bamako DVD extra, Interview.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Mali, France, USA. Production Company: Archipel 33, Chinguitty Films, Mali Images, arte France Cinéma, Louverture Films. Director and Screenwriter: Abderrahmane Sissako. Cinematographer: Jacques Besse. Cast: Aissa Maiga (Mele), Maimouna Helene Diarra (Saramba), Mamadou Kanoute (lawyer), Danny Glover (cowboy), Elia Suleiman (cowboy).]
Manthia Diawara, African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics, New York, Prestel, 2010.
David Murphy, Postcolonial African Cinema: Ten Directors, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2008.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.