Riding confidently on a growing wave of anti-capitalist sentiment in Western culture, Bamako should have no trouble finding an audience. Set in the capital of Mali and filmed in the home of director Abderrahmane Sissako’s father, Bamako is an elegant, poignant – and prejudiced – attack on the consequences of IMF and World Bank policy in Africa.
The film, a twist on the courtroom drama genre, revolves around a trial: the people of Africa vs. the World Bank and the IMF. The trial itself is formal, almost Western. A panel of judges presides over the hearing, while a team of professional lawyers represents each side in the case. A guard wearing a tousled uniform stands on duty, attempting to prevent anyone who isn’t a witness from entering the courtyard where the trial takes place (unless a small bribe is slipped his way). Sissako has assembled a cast made up of actors and activists, local villagers and well-known public figures from both African and Western society, blurring the line between fiction and documentary.
Between the passionate, emotional testimonies of the witnesses for the prosecution, life carries on in the courtyard. A marriage falls apart, a gun is stolen, a man lies dying in a darkened room off the dusty courtyard. Melé, played by the striking AíÂ¯ssa MaíÂ¯ga, sings in a bar, desperate to escape her marriage and life in Bamako. Her husband Chaka drifts listlessly on the fringes of the trial, caring for their young daughter. He teaches himself Hebrew for a time when Israel will open an embassy in the city. Their relationship, and the glimpses into the lives of the people in Bamako – the police photographer who prefers the faces of the dead to the living; the young, unemployed men listening to the trial piped out of a rusty loudspeaker; the women who dye cotton to make the tie-die, traditional clothes – provide the film with its colour, charm and touches of humour. These scenes, and Jacques Besse’s serene cinematography could easily have been spun out into a film of its own, perhaps one with a more subtle message.
The esteemed witnesses make their case. Mali has been crippled by the strain of paying off the debt owed to the financial institutions. The railroads have been virtually shut down as a result of privatization, isolating and eventually destroying villages that once thrived. Teachers lose their jobs. Children are dying, their families unable to afford medicines that would keep them alive. There seems little doubt in the director’s mind that the West’s actions have helped to ruin Africa and destroy its unique culture. Corruption is touched upon only briefly, in what feels like a half-hearted attempt to demonstrate some semblance of objectivity about the source of Mali’s despair. The defence is represented by a somewhat buffoonish French attorney, Roland Rappaport. In reality a distinguished human rights attorney, Rappaport, in the role he’s been given, is arguing a case that he simply cannot win. His African colleague is meanwhile accused of criminal complicity for her involvement in defending the Western institutions.
It is impossible not to be moved by the impassioned testimony of the witnesses, followed by a brilliant closing argument by William Bourdon, also a French attorney and former secretary-general of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues. The tragedy occurring in Africa is undeniable, but the causes are enormously complex. While a case against the World Bank and the IMF cannot justifiably be made in 115 minutes, Bamako is nonetheless a film that ought to be seen, for its humanity and its original approach to the debate over globalisation. Its timely release ensures that it will be.
For a more academic approach and two contrasting views on the local consequences of the so-called “Washington consensus”, see Joseph Stiglitz’ Globalisation and its Discontents and Jagdish Bhagwati’s In Defense of Globalization.