Trial by Fire
by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali/France, no distributor
To responsibly account for the interminable woes of an entire continent is a lot for a lone filmmaker to shoulder. But Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako has done so in his latest, Bamako, and has succeeded. Such a feat should not be underappreciated. For despite its structural flaws and self-inflicted diversions, Bamako now exists—somewhere between document and fiction—as a painful indictment of Africa’s plunder at the hands of the West. In using the most basic generic parameters of courtroom drama, Sissako has literally put the World Bank and International Monetary Fund on trial, even if it is mock. And he doesn’t make the process purely cathartic or emotional at the expense of well-argued polemic—there’s an angry, incisive intelligence at work here that speaks in a combination of passion and reason rare in any era, let alone ours.
The setting is the title city, the capital of Mali, in a poor neighborhood called Hamdallaye. Life goes on as usual as it swirls around a pretend trial of the IMF and World Bank conducted by local residents. Both organizations are charged with not forgiving Africa’s enormous debt accrued over decades of corruption, and misguided “structural adjustments” to infrastructure and public works that have left the continent (especially in the south) ravaged by poverty, disease, and strife. While these scenes awkwardly attempt to approximate the spontaneous proceedings of a real trial, their power resides in various witnesses’ (schoolteachers, former government workers) airing of grievances and evidence. Uninhibited displays of emotions are the most poignant and memorable “testimonies,” though, as when a village elder steps to the witness stand and sings a harrowing, untranslated plainsong, or when another remains stoically silent, proving Wittgenstein’s dictum: “What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”
These moments would be more than enough to make of Bamako a flawless short film (or one of those awkward films of hour-long duration), but he instead pads out the running time with unnecessary, although not gratuitous, touches. Several stories play out among the residents of Hamdallaye, and they’re all fairly innocuous—a couple squabbles; a guard studies Hebrew for the contingency of a future Israeli embassy; a gun goes missing; a young man wastes away on a bed, unable to receive needed healthcare; a wedding procession wanders into the middle of the trial. The idea is to give the viewer an understanding of quotidian life in this neighborhood, but such an effort seems utterly beside the point due to the gravity of the trial. The only enhancement is Sissako’s decision to render transparent the means of production (with an onscreen crew and a videographer character who deems the dead better to record because they’re “more real”), a counter cinema throwback that earns the film a right to other less self-reflexive, more “human” approaches.
The oddest detour involves a film within a film that the villagers, mostly children, gather around to watch on television. An international cast, including executive producer Danny Glover, French director Jean-Henri Roger, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, and the director, star as cowboys cruelly and indiscriminately murdering African citizens (although Glover gets to play hero by shooting, for some reason, one of his brethren) in a ludicrous spaghetti Western parody. For Sissako to resort to a hamfisted satire of Western imperialism (including the cultural kind—thus the use of the Western genre itself, get it? get it?) and African complicity in the middle of an otherwise sober piece of declarative realism spells temporary diversion, if only for a ten minute lag. Once the trial assumes center stage once again, this unfortunate insertion and Glover’s celebrity cameo fade away like so much vapor.
An objection might be lodged at this juncture. As fair as Sissako tries to be when handling the issue, it’s apparent where his sympathies lie. Is such a bias hypocritical and disingenuous when Sissako sets out to examine the extent of the wrongdoings of two of the most important international organizations within a legal setting, with all its reassurances of objectivity and even judgment? In a certain sense, it is, and yet in Bamako he gets away with it. Using righteous indignation, Sissako shames us for our indifference, and has one of Africa’s lawyers, William Bourdon, call for a just punishment—“eternal community service.” One of the last scenes, in which Melé (Aïssa Maïga) sings through tears to drive the point home, believe it or not, doesn’t feel the slightest bit manipulative.