In Abderrahmane Sissako’s cunningly laid-back films, the wider world is generally kept off-screen. While 1998’s Life on Earth opens in France, it spends most of its time in a small Malian town, where the only link to the outside is a single malfunctioning telephone. His 2002 film, Waiting for Happiness, never leaves an equally tiny Mauritanian village, although the promise of Europe beckons from offshore, where large ships represent a global economy that has largely bypassed Africa. The extraordinary new Bamako adopts a slightly different method: It brings the developed world to an ordinary courtyard in Mali’s capital—and puts it on trial.
The movie opens with a lovely, simple scene of a man walking under a night sky that’s slowly turning light. This sort of documentary-esque lyricism is Sissako’s trademark, and he doesn’t abandon it in Bamako. Yet much of the film is devoted to a public tribunal about the World Bank, with men and women in French-style robes debating privatization, exploitation, and “debt cancellation.” There’s also a movie spoof—starring co-executive producer Danny Glover and puckish Palestinian director Elia Suleiman—that presents the struggle between Africa and the global financial institutions as the trailer for a cowboy shoot-’em-up, Death in Timbuktu.
Threaded through these uncharacteristically contrived sequences are the sort of everyday occurrences typical of Sissako’s previous work: A singer performs at a shabby nightclub and threatens to leave her husband and return to Senegal; a man recounts a disastrous failed attempt to cross from Morocco to Spain; a woman on TV announces the broadcast of a movie that fails to begin; a preacher delivers a Christian homily in English; an unruly goat intimidates the judges; a wedding procession, complete with a Western-style bridal gown, wanders through; a man searches for a missing gun. Some of these incidents gradually coalesce into a story that’s all the more heartbreaking for being so understated.
There’s no way that a real debate over Africa’s economic woes can be as indirect as Bamako’s interwoven story. Yet Sissako treats the trial as just another event that’s happening in Bamako, Mali’s capital, something no more or less significant than the daily dying of fabric in a nearby courtyard. It’s always been difficult to tell how much of the director’s loosely assembled narratives is scripted and how much is simply found; here the answer is clearer, and yet the tribunal proceeds as if Sissako had just happened upon it and decided to include it on a whim. While the indictment of Euro-American economic planning and its disastrous effects on Africa is by definition didactic, the film is not structured as a lesson, or even as a courtroom drama. Bamako is angry, but it’s not 12 Angry Men. Don’t expect to see Paul Wolfowitz—who is mentioned—crack under some Francophone Perry Mason’s cross-examination and admit he conspired to steal the continent’s wealth.
If Bamako is surprisingly poised given its inherently theatrical premise, it’s not as graceful or cohesive as Sissako’s previous films. (Maybe Death in Timbuktu should have preceded the movie or been excised altogether.) Yet the film’s concerns are raw and crucial, and the director’s handling of them remarkably subtle and relaxed. Sissako asks not for indictments or penalties but simply for inclusion. He acknowledges that, no matter how locally he focuses his camera, the industrialized world is always present just outside the frame. As African migrants scramble to Europe, Bamako insists that Europeans and Americans must travel, at least figuratively, to Africa. And they must make the trip not as planners or lenders but with the sensibility of a filmmaker: to see reality and to tell the truth.