(This was written as part of a job application.)
Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako is an audacious film. It encourages us to ponder over the conceit of rational argumentation and the irrationality of rations for the world’s poorest. The film presents a trial of the IMF and World Bank, set in the courtyard of a multi-family dwelling in the capital of Mali with the African civil society acting as plaintiff. Though Bamako runs the risk of being labelled a “festival film” due to the subject and treatment, the film’s modest juxtaposition of modernist argumentation in a courtyard filled with the banal, the sick and the low-brow lays bare the futility of discussions about ethics in the African public sphere. Instead, it provides those in the developed world an opportunity revisit their understanding of both cinema and Africa. Bamako neither offers narrative arcs or visual wizardry nor does it permit us to exploit Africa to define our liberal selfhood. For example, a sideways glance of the history of Western cinema, from the 1935 colonial epic Sanders of the River by Zoltan Korda to the more recent representations of Africa in films such as The Constant Gardener and Blood Diamond, reminds us that the continent has long served as a backdrop for the imagination and articulation of our pleasures and politics, all neatly wrapped in stylised and entertaining filmic conventions. Instead, poetic realism is deployed to eloquently accuse the defendants of using Structural Adjustments Policies (SAPs) to ration resources and deciding who gets what and how much.
The boldness of the film is not in representing hunger, but in demanding criminal liability of those responsible. Non-expert Africans, a writer, a professor and a farmer, bear testimony to the detailed arguments of the plaintiff. The lyricism of the courtroom pleas constantly collides with the cruel reality of the people going about with their lives nearby: a fever-stricken child; the crumbling marriage of an unemployed man and his wife, who supports the family working as a nightclub singer; and the cloth dyer who carries on working despite ill-health. Sissako teasingly inserts a Sergio Leone parody of the Wild West in Africa, taking care to not turn it into a celebration of post-modern pastiche. These seemingly unrelated vignettes repeatedly disrupt the solemnity of the legal apparatus and further the anachronistic nature of Bamako. However, Sissako’s Brechtian drama can be easily pieced together by a sensitive audience. The conceit of staging a trial for the reckoning with all the old bones of contention between Africa and its former colonial powers is not new. Ousmane Sembene used allegory and the griot oral traditions to devastating effect in his seminal film Xala. We could ask a simple question: would Africa ever be able to bring the guilty to trial? This strategy of a blunt address is another addition to the African political film, something we could do well to learn about and appreciate. As Jean-Luc Godard said: “The problem is not to make political films but to make films politically”.