Out of Africa: 'Bamako,' a Fanciful Tale With a Moral Ending

"Bamako" addresses Africa's troubles with testimony, such as this scene with Witness Assa Badiallo Souko, right. (New Yorker Films)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007

With the death of Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène last week, as well as recent news stories about the G8 conference, Bono's stint as guest editor at Vanity Fair and the sentimental education of Paul Wolfowitz, the arrival of "Bamako" couldn't be timelier.

Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, this affecting drama serves to remind us that the African film culture Sembène is largely credited with creating is still flourishing, and his legacy of politically-engaged, realist form of filmmaking is being carried on by a new generation. What's more, the story he tells -- a fictional fantasy interwoven with documentary elements -- reminds viewers of the human stakes behind the usual headlines about Africa's economic future.

Filming in the very courtyard of the residential building where he grew up in the Mali capital of Bamako, Sissako employs the quintessentially African, community-based approach to telling the story of a continent that, as one observer puts it, has been impoverished by its own wealth. Viewers immediately know they're in the realm of fantasy when a group of judges and lawyers, arrayed in robes and powdered wigs, take their seats in the dusty yard. It turns out that the citizens of Mali have put the World Bank and International Monetary Fund on trial for the failed "structural adjustments" of the 1980s, which by many lights have been disastrous for the African people they have purported to help.

Debt policy, privatization and trade liberalization are all subject to powerfully eloquent critiques on the part of the non-professional actors Sissako enlisted to testify on screen, some of whom are real-life public servants who were laid off, they say, as a result of international policies. Rather than the means to their liberation, they explain, Western-imposed regimes have kept Africans in a crushing cycle of dependence and exploitation. Throughout the legal proceedings, life comes and goes in the courtyard, with a beguiling cabaret singer named Melé (Aissa Maiga) blithely attending to her morning toilette, then singing sad ballads at a nearby cafe. Her unemployed husband (Tiécoura Traoré) teeters silently on the brink of despair while a group of women dye cloth in rich, jewel-toned hues. A wedding procession threads through, then a funeral.

Not one to coddle the audience with obvious narrative arcs and plot points, Sissako interrupts "Bamako" with a movie-within-a-movie, in which his producer, Danny Glover, and Palestinian director Elia Suleiman star in a spaghetti western whose point, it seems, is to implicate Africans at least a little bit in their own plight. But maybe not; its meaning is ambiguous in a story that refuses to hew to Hollywood notions of structure.

Experts in the monetary policies argued in "Bamako" will no doubt gnash their teeth at Sissako's simplification of a problem that, in economic parlance, is overdetermined at best. But no one can deny the powerful emotional reality that lends "Bamako" its heavy moral weight. When a man who has refused to speak throughout the proceedings ("Words can seize your heart") opens his mouth to deliver a final, ringing cry of rage and pain, it plays like the musical equivalent to an adage that will be achingly familiar to American viewers: Attention must be paid.

Bamako (115 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema, in French and Bambara with subtitles) is not rated.

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