The Reeler

Reviews

February 12, 2007

Bamako

African debt-relief courtroom drama too dogmatic and elusive for embrace

More often than not, dogmatic cinema matches form to content: an excess of style could get in the way of the preaching, whether to the choir or the hectoring skeptics. Bamako stands out for matching a perversely opaque, near-Godardian approach to what is basically a straightforward lecture on the injustice of the international financial community's treatment of Africa, with a particular amount of anger reserved for the IMF and World Bank.

Though the plot resists summary, Bamako is essentially an extended courtroom drama in the old-fashioned sense: In a dusty courtyard, judges sit in the heat with their wigs and robes, cooled by a rickety old fan that seems to be waiting for Atticus Finch. Instead, prosecutors for The African People show up, along with defendants for the IMF, World Bank and others. The lawyers of both sides are racially mixed (the main speakers are played by real lawyers -- William Bourdon for the prosecution, Roland Rappaport for the defense), to avoid easy accusations of latent racism. Despite Bamako's many digressions (including a look into the lives of those living in the house that possesses the courtyard, scenes of people listening to the trial on radios throughout the city, musical interludes and a really bizarre moment when a host of people watching TV see an African western starring, among others, Danny Glover and famed Palestinian director Elia Suleiman), the trial is Bamako's constant throughline. Despite its prominence, however, the whole affair seems about as consequential as a high school mock trial; the unofficial setting implies an academic debate rather than a World Court hearing over the international financial community's wrongs to Africa.

The statistics reeled off by prosecution are fairly staggering: Thanks to interest rates, corrupt infrastructure and the fundamental inability of newly independent African states to enter a first-world economy, many countries allocate enormous resources to paying off the very debts incurred by loans that were intended to jumpstart nascent economies. (Cameroon, for example, sets aside $8 billion annually for social services and $72 billion for the payment of debt -- out of a total budget of only $200 billion.) Though both sides get equal time, there is no question where the moral weight lies: Bamako is unambiguously in favor of debt relief, most forcefully in the moment when an impassioned villager reframes the debate by rejecting the word "poverty." The problem, she insists, is the "pauperization" being enabled by the same countries that once colonized and now ostensibly aid Africa. It's the kind of semantic distinction entire academic careers are built from, and in this case it also happens to be a legitimate concern.

Despite the litany of statistics and angry callings-out (unsurprisingly, George W. and Paul Wolfowitz are about as popular in Africa as in New York City), those looking for a balanced primer on African debt relief should turn elsewhere. If director Abderrahmane Sissako's approach is morally clear, it remains low on context and high on bewildering stylistic choices. The courtroom itself is a prime Godardian space, where the legalistic goings-on occur alongside the mundane day-to-day activities of villagers, with no real demarcation between the two; the personal becomes political, in a surrealistic way. There is also someone on hand to spout quasi-meaningful aphorisms like: "The faces of people who talk don't interest me. The faces of the dead are truer."

Above all, Sissako privileges the individual testimonies, both structurally and visually; his favorite shot is an extreme shallow-focus close-up, with a subject's head up front against an infinitely blurry background. The intent is presumably to humanize a seemingly abstract issue, though the speakers themselves are rarely granted real individuality. Structurally the film jumps around, obliquely juxtaposing everyday life with key moments from the trial; the result is less narrative than a series of poetic gestures applied to a flat subject. It's hard to know what to make of it all: Even if you think the politics are right on (this reviewer is hardly well-informed enough to judge), the film itself is alternately too dogmatic and elusive to embrace.



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