Out of Africa?

Described as the authentic voice of Africans, new film Bamako is actually more of an indulgent treat for guilt-ridden Westerners.

Ceri Dingle

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Bamako, the widely acclaimed film scripted and directed by Mauritanian-born, Malian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, has been talked up as the authentic African voice in contrast to Hollywood’s Blood Diamond. In 2002, Sissako directed the feted Waiting for Happiness (Heremakono) and his craftsmanship is evident. In Bamako, he cleverly interweaves, in docu-drama style, overt political comment with a very true-to-life portrayal of Mali’s grim everyday poverty. Yet from a political point of view, this is the most depressing film I have seen this year. It is also about as ‘authentic’ as the voice of southern NGOs, relaying every conceivable Western development prejudice.

Bamako, which is named after a town in Mali, centres on a makeshift alfresco court hearing in the compound or ‘courtyard’ of the homes of local villagers, whose lives interrupt and criss-cross the proceedings. The World Bank and the IMF are in the dock and Africa is the plaintiff. The accusations levelled at the international financial institutions are around familiar issues: globalisation, structural adjustment, debt, emigration, terrorism, poor healthcare and education, the collapse of moral values, pauperisation and Paul Wolfowitz.

In its creative construction and use of the court, the film recasts poverty as a human rights issue. This mirrors the current shift in development thinking from conceptions of development as material transformation to a rights-based approach centring on caring and giving the poor a voice. True to this approach, and the demeaning nature of seeking justice through litigation, there are no demands for more in Bamako. No collective aspirations are paraded here, no calls for political autonomy or economic freedom – just the heartfelt condemnation by those individuals who have suffered.

The film is a victim-centred treat for the guilty Westerner, who wants to feel the suffering and share the shame of the West’s maltreatment of Africa. The film is not without comic touches: the grey-haired white lawyer, defending the guilty, is nearly head butted by the ram he resembles, and locals wisely drift to sleep as the proceedings are broadcast over crudely wired loudspeakers.

The film nonetheless overdoes on symbolism. As we move back to the lives of those living around the court, newly dyed blood-red sheets, the colour dripping into the gutter, fill the screen and a photographer discusses his preference for recording the dead. At one point, locals gather around a television to watch a spaghetti western called Death in Timbuktu, starring Danny Glover and Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, in which the bad guys don’t get wasted. In another scene, an actual local, Chaka (Tiecoura Traore), is shot somewhere on the outskirts of Bamako. His funeral interrupts the hearing, filmed by the photographer. We see lawyers try on Gucci sunglasses from a street seller and tramp up and down with mobile phones, and washing lines criss-cross the court to reinforce the film’s narrative structure.

Back in the court (or courtyard) one witness appears twice. The court usher tells him it is not his turn yet and instructs him to sit down, despite the witness’s desperation to convey his ‘words’. When he re-appears, he delivers an impassioned ‘testimony’, partly – and quite beautifully – sung in Bambara. Bereft of subtitles, this man represents the ‘noble savage’, one of the few witnesses everyone listens to although unintelligible to the ‘outsiders’. Reminiscent of the ‘last of his tribe’ Aborigine character in Werner Herzog’s 1984 film Where the Green Ants Dream, he epitomises the relativists’ and anthropologists’ subject. He represents the suffering at the hands of the faceless fiscal giants who cannot understand him, and of a Western legal system whose bureaucratic procedures do not respect this truly indigenous being. So he must spontaneously vocalise his feelings in native tongue and traditional cultural form and we must respect him for his identity and suffering.

Following the G8’s derisory debt relief package agreed at Gleneagles in 2005, which is referred to in the film, Bamako is a timely piece. Yet, in echoing a lot of familiar criticisms, which mostly miss the mark, it is very dated. For example, debt is portrayed as the product of squandered funding. This has apparently brought Mali to its knees, with onerous repayments to Western lenders draining revenues, having devastating consequences for social provision. In truth, Mali never had enough funds in the first place. Debt is only a burden in the absence of growth – in fact, the developed world relies on it, too. The constant rescheduling of debt servicing did not drain the already empty coffers, as the West simply provided aid to cover debt repayments but called it aid. No new money ever really arrived.

There is no doubt that, as the film informs us, the World Bank and IMF structural adjustment policy, which set out conditionalities for loans, wreaked havoc across the developing world, creating massive unemployment. Yet this is not the real crime we should be convicting these institutions for today; the stringent fiscal conditionalities have softened and the World Bank has listened to ‘the voices of the poor’. Its pro-poor focus and the pro-poor conditionalities it has attached to debt relief are the truly insidious strings, but they are never really questioned. They deny autonomy, degrade democracy, disallow productive spending and damn recipient countries.

Bamako relays a sense of impotence, hopelessness and appeal to the West for ‘justice’ and to simply care more. Does the film have any redeeming features? Yes, the nightclub singer Mele (played by Aissa Maiga) is the most extraordinarily beautiful and compelling talent to have graced our screens in years. In all other respects, this script could have been written by the World Bank itself.

Ceri Dingle is director of WORLDwrite and Chew On It Productions. She directed the films Damned by Debt Relief, A Letter to Geldof and Think BIG.

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