Rather unusually and certainly quite originally, Bamako has an unique premise for a film, setting up a mock trial in the courtyard of a house in the African nation of Mali where the plaintiffs representing the African nations testify against the injustice done to their continent by the World Bank and the IMF. It’s a mock trail however only through the fact that it has been set up for a film, but the people involved take it very seriously indeed. And it’s no wonder why. The actions of the World Bank, representing the financial interests of the world’s developed countries have very real and grave consequences for all involved. While life goes on as normal in and around the courtyard and in the neighbouring area, one by one people step forward and present their case and state the facts as they apply to them.
The charge placed against the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the G8, the USA and the European nations is a very serious one - that they have exploited the resources of poor African nations and still today unjustly demand the repayment of exorbitant debts that cripple the countries and their citizens, preventing them from ever achieving their true potential. The consequences of such a state of affairs, the plaintiff’s plead, is all too apparent. With around 40% of many of the countries’ annual budget being siphoned off by the IMF to pay the national debt, only a fraction is channelled into essential social services, health and education, resulting in political corruption, poverty, disease, and unacceptable levels of child mortality.
But it is not just the African nations that have to deal with the consequences of such inequitable and unjust treatment. Such conditions inevitably give rise to two things most feared by the Western nations – terrorism and immigration. Why then does such a state of affairs persist when the “debt” has clearly already been paid many times over? The charge is that the financial institutions obey only one master - globalisation, capitalism, call it whatever you want, but it’s all about making money.
It’s a worthy subject for a film if a somewhat dry and academic one. Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako however finds numerous ways to make the necessary points and present the issues. The courtyard trail is obviously the central and most direct manner – and it’s a very successful one – but the director also uses fictional devices by following the people in the background, watching how they exist and live their lives. The parallel situations allow for juxtaposition and irony, as well as illustrating many of the stories and testimonies presented. Sometimes, this can be rather heavy-handed, as when one of the defense counsel tries to buy a pair of fake Gucci sunglasses from a street trader, and sometimes rather obscure, as in a televised Western where celebrities such as Danny Glover and Elia Suleiman star as ruthless gunslingers. Sissako is however much more successful, subtle and emotive when he just shows the ordinary people going about their everyday business in the face of adverse conditions, a trait the director demonstrated in his previous film Waiting For Happiness. Not all the methods are successful, but they do at least remain relevant and support the central purpose of the film.
That purpose is a brave one, a daring one, a challenging one and certainly an original one that is often quite brilliant in its inventiveness, as well as having a deeply relevant and important issue to address. Bamako pleads a special case for hundreds of thousands of people forced to live in unjust, impoverished conditions imposed on them from the outside that effectively deny them basic freedoms. What could be more important than that as a reason for making a film? An Inconvenient Truth aside, how many other films have you seen recently that are prepared to tackle major social issues that have grave repercussions for millions of people on the planet?
On the other hand, by making a film like this, Abderrahmane Sissako risks becoming the Bob Geldof or the Bono of the film world. By reducing the plight of so many nations and people to mere soundbites and emotive grandstanding, he risks oversimplifying the issue and sacrificing accuracy in order to make a point – important and well-meaning though it may be. Also like Geldof and Bono, while their sincerity isn’t in doubt, you have to question whether their message will reach its intended audience. Or perhaps that intended audience really is just the one already receptive to its message – the educated, intellectual, liberal arthouse movie-going audience. If so, then the film’s self-reflection isn’t going to change anything – just affirm the beliefs of those who are already predisposed to its message. The jury is out on whether Sissako achieves anything in Bamako other than restating a case that has already been made by many others more accurately and more authoritatively but there can little doubt about where the guilty party in this case lies, and Sissako makes the case well.
Bamako is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is Region 2 encoded and in PAL format.
The video quality is reasonably good, but for some reason appears to be lacking the full strength of colours, looking over-bright and slightly yellow-tinted, which means it can look quite glaring, particularly in scenes where the desert sand is shown. I can’t think why this would be a stylistic choice, but it may be something to do with the transfer of the film from DV to film print. The image can appear slightly soft, grain is evident and edge-enhancement is pronounced. The overall impression however is of a very stable image which is clear and free from any marks at all.
The film comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes, and there’s little to choose between them, the surround mix only really coming into effect in a couple of scenes. Both mixes are strong, clear and unshowy, yet fully conveying the essential qualities of the dialogue throughout.
English subtitles are provided in a white font and would appear to be just about perfect, since it seems to get the message across quite clearly. Certain lines of dialogue and singing are not translated and it appears that it is the director’s intention that they not be translated, but are allowed to express themselves through the tone and tenor alone.
Bamako is the kind of film that calls out for a commentary track (and it’s not often I say that) – but the extra features provided by Artificial Eye, as usual are more interesting and comprehensive than most commentaries.
The main extra is an Interview with Abderrahmane Sissako (35:41), where the director discusses his intentions for the film in depth. The film is certainly a polemic, and Sissako, as an African filmmaker makes no bones about using the medium of cinema to speak for those who have no voice. He also talks about his personal background, its influence on who he is and how he makes films, his working methods in Bamako and his choices of professional and non-professional actors for the parts. Who needs a commentary?
There is also an Interview with Danny Glover (7:37), where the actor speaks about his reasons for supporting such a project - a very different kind of film from what he is used to making - the various issues it raises and how they can be addressed. Interestingly, a Christian Aid Promotional Film (3:09) has been included, an educational film featuring a number of other celebrities who all support the aim of wiping out the African debt and bringing an end to poverty.
The remainder of the extra features consist of a short biography and Filmography for the director, a brief Trailer (1:20), a cobbled together Stills Gallery (1:31) slideshow of fuzzy indistinct photos and a text Director’s Statement explains the situation in rather more direct terms.
Bamako is not a perfect film, but it’s an important one. It raises a number of serious issues and delivers them in a manner that is not only impassioned and genuinely felt, but is also highly inventive and impressively made. It is however a polemic, it doesn’t present any evidence for many of its claims, it doesn’t offer any easy solutions and it can occasionally be dull, obscure, heavy-handed and over-simplified. Its championing of the African nations against the actions of the richer nations of the G8 and the multinational corporations is certainly something that needs to be said, and it’s particularly effective hearing those points being made by Africans themselves. Will it reach an audience other than the arthouse cinema-going public who are most likely to be already predisposed towards being receptive of its well-meaning phrases and eloquent speeches? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try. Putting aside the political content to one side – though you can’t really divorce the content from the technique - Abderrahmane Sissako at the very least takes on a difficult subject and makes it into a very good film that inventively exploits the range of cinematic possibilities and gives its audience a lot to think about. Sissako is proving to be a unique and major filmmaking talent and what he brings to the film here makes Bamako essential viewing.