Film-Forward Review: [BAMAKO]

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Aïssa Maïga as Melé
Photo: New Yorker Films

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Directed and Written by: Abderrahmane Sissako.
Produced by: Denis Freyd & Sissako.
Director of Photography: Jacques Besse.
Edited by: Nadia ben Rachid.
Language: French & Bambara with English Subtitles.
Country of Origin: Mali/France/USA. 118 Minutes. Not Rated.
Released by: New Yorker Films.
With: Aïssa Maïga, Tiécoura Traoré, Hélène Diarra, Magma Gabriel Konaté, Roland Rappaport & Aïssata Tall Sall.

This long screed against the policies of multinational financial institutions in Africa is interrupted by warmly illustrative anecdotes of the impact these policies have on everyday Africans. Writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako judges the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank within the courtyard of the house where he grew up in Bamako, Mali’s capital.

More a debate than a legal proceeding, opinions, poetry, and Confucian sayings are given more weight than the few facts provided, such as the proportion of national budgets allocated for interest payments (40%) vs. social services (12%) in Cameroon, Mali, and other countries. Most of the arguments are presented by academics who passionately expound at great length on conspiracy theories about predatory capitalism and corruption inherited from colonialism.

Frequently interrupting the testimony, the life in the courtyard goes on – a marriage, a funeral, a crime investigation. The local residents are alternately fascinated by the trial proceedings and apathetic, as they frequently turn off the loudspeakers and doubt that anyone else would care about the trial. Throughout, the strength of African women is particularly saluted: the sensuous and striving singer Melé (played by the striking Aïssa Maïga); several of the lawyers and academics; and those who carry on with their lives, running a laundry, nursing babies, and caring for the sick.

But the charming vignettes of daily African life come close to the fundraising appeals of late-night television as arguments approach buffoonery through a film-within-a-film. Executive producer Danny Glover stars in “Death in Timbuktu,” an exaggerated spaghetti Western. A multi-racial group of cowboys, clearly representing the G8 and the African heads of state who do their bidding, take over a town and brutally kill civilians in cold blood, until one has a change of heart.

Occasionally this agitprop makes a few points beyond the level of the debt relief sound bites MTV celebrities pitched during the 2005 Live 8 concerts, particularly how exaggerated fears about immigration and terrorism are connected to the issues examined. However, the whiff of anti-Semitism is a bit disconcerting, as the judge makes a point of precisely pronouncing the defendant’s lawyer’s name, Rappaport. Only Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank, is directly named in addition to President Bush as the enemy, and an unemployed man keeps playing a Hebrew language tape, presumably to help him get a job in Israel. Additionally, English-speaking Christian preachers are seen as alien and bombastic interlopers in contrast to the quiet Muslims at their daily prayers. The film aims to humanize abstract discussions of debt relief within an African community. But like the denizens of the courtyard, the audience will only pay attention to noteworthy bits and pieces, given that Bamako preaches to the already converted. Nora Lee Mandel
February 14, 2007



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