There are some uber aggressive didactics on display as Mauritanian-born Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako drags totems of neoliberalism; the World Bank and the IMF before a tribunal that is still going on till this day. The surrealism and idealism of the trial at the centre of 2006’s ‘Bamako’ waver between tedious and electric. But blink and you will miss the oceans of depth on the periphery producing violent waves that crash us back into our depressing existence.
The tribunal is being held in a compound house (significant for being the director’s childhood home) and the plaintiff is Africa. There is a panel of black and white judges hearing the case like the fate of the world depended on it. Teams of lawyers, also black and white, represent each side amid articulate debate on imperialism, neocolonialism and the globalisation that has wrecked the continent. Sissako sought out real judges and lawyers as he laid the foundation for a verité approach to this part of the film. He also assembled a cross-section of witnesses comprising childhood friends, a former minister of culture, among others, all appearing as themselves.
The unscripted discourse smoulders with timeless urgency in what is said and left unsaid. The first person on the stand, an elderly un-educated man who has been unheard all his life, is denied his catharsis. Justice is lost in translation as the condescending translator abuses his bilingual gifts to convince the man to leave the stand despite the judge agreeing to hear his testimony. “My words won’t remain within me,” he says in his native Bambara with a cadence more haunting than it needed to be.
I felt a subtle jab from Sissako here; something having to do with the disenfranchising and devaluing of people on a basis as basic as language. By the next witness, we’ve sadly forgotten about this man. The stand sizzles with the measured provocative testimony of a writer. As she declares George Bush the conductor of Africa’s “pauperisation”, she sets the tone for the eloquent and angry speeches that follow from other regular Malians who highlight the dysfunction brought on by colonisation, globalisation, capitalism, debt and the like, ably supported by the scathing barbs from the prosecution.
Sissako has no interest in balance here. He knows his audience will not suffer any counterarguments along the lines of innate corruption and like as responsible for Africa’s ills. Though he is asking questions; on whether the architecture of Bretton Woods institutions, their neoliberal policies and their handlers from the west, have contributed to the impoverishment and demoralisation of the continent but like some of the cinematic forbearers of the continent, his message is clear for us to see.
And it is 2006 here but Sissako is also wary of the growing influence of China and it would be interesting to see what the 2020’s multipolar iteration of ‘Bamako’ would look like.
On the margins of the court proceedings, which are also being filmed and broadcast on radio and loudspeakers, life goes on. Sissako cuts way from the trial intermittently to nose around the interactions that traverse generations, gender, class and the like. Some of our incursions are dour, like the time spent with an ailing man seemingly on his death bed or a child thrust into motherhood.
Other encounters fascinate, like the baby who’s steps are scored to a squeaky toy or with the photographer with obviously morbid tendencies who holds death to be the cradle of truth. And more pertinent to the flow of the film, there’s a cross-eyed soul-piercing investigator who probes for a missing police officer’s gun in what ostensibly feels like a search for one’s masculinity.
The question of masculinity ties in with the quietly miserable life of Chaka (Tiécoura Traoré). He has a daughter with his stunning singer wife Melé (Aïssa Maïga) who has all but tapped out from the marriage given her cold cadence Sissako’s clever depiction of brazen infidelity here. It doesn’t help that Chaka is unemployed, reminding us that, ever so delicately, Sissako is meshing the big socio-economic ideas of the raging trial with fraught existence of the average African.
Less is definitely more on this front as Sissako and ‘Bamako’ demands a rewatch to fully appreciate the precision on the margins on the trial. There is an overpowering sense of melancholy that simmers from the ruins of reality the antagonists in the premise of the film have seemingly and systematically constructed. Our director insists that you will not appreciate the arguments in the trial till you inhale the fumes of the machine of empathy roving about in the society.
Sissako does something similar within the context of the trial. We expect the story of Malian youth trekking across the desert towards a Europe sure to offer more dystopia than utopia. But there is a flashback almost arbitrarily inserted, at odds with the structure of the film, that stings, as the ghastly testimony of a migrant, now returned home, recounts how a woman disguised as a man was left for dead in the scorching wasteland of the Sahara. This testimony hits harder thanks to the fine editing that cuts to the flowing blood-red dye from the near-by tie-dye business that left me incredibly uneasy in the way it evoked fabric threaded with violence and mundane.
Speaking of structural twists, we a venture into the somewhat surreal with a spaghetti western the community watches on TV called Death in Timbuktu. It stars Danny Glover, who has a producer credit on Bamako, amongst a diverse cast, that captures the mind of its audience metatextually in the way it depicts the cultural exploitation of the continent by foreign entities that has been just as damaging as the economic oppression as a scene features members of the posse gunning down some indigenes with the callousness of hyenas.
On a continent where human life seems to have lost value, the spectre of death still leaves a cold mark across ‘Bamako’s narrative. We get some solace in the pursuit of justice, however fantastical.
But with the highlighting of the blood stained-hands of the economic order comes the plea for something resembling humanity, which remains Bamako’s most compelling attribute. The elderly man at the beginning of the trial eventually returns, this time with a song that dithers between anger and mourning. There are no subtitles to guide, no translator to con us. But his pain is palpable. We later hear his plea from a. more honest translator: “Why don’t I sow anymore? When I sow, why don’t I reap? When I reap, why don’t I eat?”