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NYFF: Bamako

October 3rd, 2006 (11:59 pm)

© D. Gordon 2006

Dir: Abderrahmane Sissako

Every year, during the festival, there's invariably one movie that I start nodding off on. It has nothing to do with the movie; usually it's late in the festival, it's the second movie of that day (so starts around 9 pm), and I'm just running out of steam. This year, in an unfortunate and ominous way, it started with movie #3 on day #2: Bamako, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako.

I'm doubly bummed because the topic itself is something important to me: politics and policy.

Bamako is the capital of Mali, one of the poorest countries on the planet. It's an apt location and an apt title for a movie that puts the World Bank and IMF on trial for policies which have done little to improve poverty and socioeconomic development in Africa. This isn't a running diatribe against the West; although it's lear where Sissako's sympathies lie, there is a serious and sustained effort to explain World Bank / IMF actions on the continent and why the organization felt justified doing what it has. There's a dialogue, not a monologue.

Running parallel to that trial is a story following Melé, a nightclub singer, and Chaka, her unemployed husband, who live in the courtyard where the trial is being held. Together they represent a Malian Every Couple reflecting the effects of Western aid policy on their marriage and lives as they struggle to raise their young daughter.

This movie came out of Sissako's acquaintance with Danny Glover, who decided several years ago to work with him on a project that spoke to conditions in Africa. This movie is that project, and the result is extremely well done. I missed a good part of Melé and Chaka's story with the nodding off (grrr), but what I saw was a tight exposition of the rising tensions between the couple (and I did see the ending, so I have to got back and see the rest). Melé in particular was frankly fascinating; she has a beautiful singing voice, and an attitude that she's going to do what she needs to.

There's also a great movie-within-a-movie clip midstream. One evening Chako turns on the television; after the nightly newscast grinds to a halt due to technical difficulties, a western comes on. It's an African, not a Hollywood, western: a good guy / bad guy gunfight in the streets of Timbuktu, featuring cameos by Sissako, Glover, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, and French director Jean-Henri Roger. The brilliance is in the symbols: a small-w / big-W western in both senses of the word; an African Western, combining two things that sometimes mix just as well as oil and water. The cowboys shoot at each other but also kill bystanders, all Africans: a woman carrying food is hit and sprawls on the dusty ground, her young son left to cry (and starve) next to the body. This says way, way too much about how western policies create a pretty untenable situation on the ground and then feed it to the locals... as the focus switches away from the western to an audience watching it, rapt, in a movie theater.

All in all, I really wish I hadn't been so tired during this. The subject underlines some pretty key issues in international development: how the World Bank and IMF, institutions set up to help Europe in the immediate aftermath of WWII, have yet to surmount the challenges they face in countries with socioeconomic / geopolitical traditions differing from the donor countries. My hope is that audiences go in with an open mind, not tuning out because of the politics, and learn a bit about the world they don't normally see and the places where globalization hasn't worked.