Last night I finally had the pleasure of watching the film ‘Bamako’ by Abderrahmane Sissako. I have often been told how wonderful the film is but due to it being shot in a mixture of Bambara and French I had always neglected to watch it. The reason I feel the need to write about it is that a lot of themes encountered in the film are very relevant to life in Mali today. I apologise unreservedly to Abderrahmane because I did receive the film through Africa’s version of Megaupload.com (a USB) but I promise I am going to buy a copy on Amazon and send it to Bill and Clare in the UK so they can see it as well.
Africa has numerous countries with vibrant film industries and I recently travelled to Burkina Faso to attend Africa’s largest film festival Fespaco. Due to the language barrier, most African films I have watched are either Nigerian, Ghanaian or star Leon Schuster. In saying that, I have sat through numerous Nigerian
films and whilst it is wrong of me to put a brush through the world’s second biggest film industry I am the first to admit that I have rarely seen a Nigerian film that could hold my attention for the entire film. The exception being if I am stuck on a bus in which the dvd player and tv are both functioning at the same time. No matter how bad I think the film is, the volume is usually so loud that the only way you could not follow what was happening was if you slipped into a coma. Though sometimes a coma is preferable to reality as my old mate Phil eloquently describes in detail when writing about one of his delightful bus trips from Bamako to Dakar.
Now I know that I live in Bamako and perhaps me proclaiming my love for a film about my adopted home town might be a bit rich to some but quite honestly, this is an outstanding movie. I assume that by watching ‘Bamako’ with English subtitles I am missing a few of the nuances that only a native speaker can pick up. Whilst the subject matter of the film is brilliant, it is quite often the things happening in the background that made me smile.
The film has a few parallel stories running together but the primary focus is the human cost of globalistion. The main story is based around a trial in which the plaintiff ‘African Society’ are claiming that the IMF and the World Bank are responsible for holding impoverished African countries back. It is incredibly well written and some of the arguments put forward by the Malian ‘witnesses’ are compelling. The film also touches on the risks taken by immigrants attempting to find a better life in Europe as they feel they are incapable of achieving the same in their home country. There is also a mention of how terrorism is a curse that affects Africa as well as the west and that Africans want to fight terrorism. However it is nearly impossible when the continent is cursed with such extreme poverty. All of these points are extremely relevant today.
I mentioned earlier about the things that happen in the background that really grabbed my attention. Nothing says Mali quite like watching a court scene where a highly emotive argument is being put forward by an immaculately dressed and forceful lady whilst in the background a young girl is collecting water from a well with a rope and bucket. Or how a lady dying Bazin, when on hearing something she disagrees with in the trial decides that even though there are lawyers, judges and protocols in place she still barges in and voices her opinion regardless of the fact that she has nothing to do with the trial. No matter how serious things get in Mali, life still goes on. The staff at The Sleeping Camel Hotel proved this during the coup. Even though the military were tearing around town and shooting what little ammunition they had into the air the staff to a person still turned up to work. The scene where the lead counsel for the World Bank has just purchased a pair of knock off Gucci sunglasses before getting charged by a ram whilst chatting up his girlfriend on the phone is priceless. Who hasn’t whilst wandering aimlessly around Bamako’s dusty back streets unwittingly stumbled into the path of someone’s prized Tabaski sheep?
The film premiered at the Cannes Film festival in 2006 but after the turmoil of the past 12 months and the sudden realisation to the west that Mali’s democracy was a sham it is enlightening to see the very thought of democracy was denounced by one of the directors protagonists in this film several years ago. The following is a transcript of his speech and whilst I am relying on the translation provided by the subtitles, it is an incredibly strong indictment on the realities faced in Mali long before the system totally collapsed in 2012.
‘Today in Mali or other countries, if you fall ill and you have no money, you’re dead. Everything here concerning democracy or elections is nothing but a show, a big show. We occasionally go to vote but it’s as if we were never there. This external legitimacy of power remains in place today, many intellectuals have accepted it, but I won’t judge anyone. But each one of us had a moment of clarity and then made a deliberate choice. Either I fully support the ideals of my people or I sell them off, as many of our governments do. That’s their share of responsibility in this. I think I should have stayed there. Perhaps it was better for me than coming to work for a corrupt Mali administration that has no responsibilities. We end up asking ourselves, “Why do we receive a salary? For a job we don’t do.” All of a sudden, we regress in relation to goals we had or that we were attaining before. They’ve taken everything from us. I didn’t realise that poverty, albeit imposed poverty, could change human nature to this extent. But today, I may be allowed to assert that when I step out into the street, believe me, I don’t meet other Malians. I see everything in Mali but Malians. Urdu to French . A man who is hungry, a man without health care, a man who is never educated and left in total obscurantism, is a man who will negate himself and be in denial. domain archive . He’s a man who will become alienated, lost and depraved.’
This truly is an outstanding story and I honestly implore you to make the effort to get your hands on this film (legally so as to support the local film industry).
As an aside, the film inside the film was an absolutely brilliant distraction. Some children are watching a movie in one of the scenes after a day of litigation and suddenly Danny Glover appears on their TV screen in a féaux western – ‘Death in Timbuktu’. Danny Glover was an executive producer of ‘Bamako’ so props to Danny for his support of a film that so clearly supports the Malian film industry.
In parting, when the lead counsel is wrapping up and recommending a penalty for the World Bank he states. ‘We can’t throw Wolfowitz in the Niger, the crocodiles wouldn’t want him.’ Brilliant.
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