You don’t get many films like this on release from a mainstream (albeit ‘independent’) distributor like Artificial Eye these days. This came out in the UK in 2007, but possibly only on one print. The print we showed in Bradford had bad scratches down the centre of the image for the first few minutes. Audience members I spoke to afterwards were overwhelmed by the tirade of ideas that came flying at them and some said how it was a shock to see a film that really made you think.
Writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako was born in Mauretania, brought up in Mali and trained as a filmmaker in the Soviet Union during the 1980s. These days he lives in France (I think) and travels back to Africa to make films. He has a healthy scepticism about the politics and lifestyle of Europeans and Americans and in this film goes for the jugular with a well-argued case against the G8 nations who pretend to cancel African debts but in practice, via the World Bank and the IMF, continue to bleed Africa so that the poorest continent pays back more than it ever ‘borrowed’. In fact, as one speaker suggests, it is Africa’s riches which attract the North and it is because they have been stolen that Africa is poor. Sissako also condemns the Africans who aid the North in this plunder.
Anyone who claims that they don’t like to be “preached at” will probably not last more than a few minutes into the film. That’s a shame, but those who are more open to ideas will learn a great deal (and enjoy a film which is rich in meanings beautifully presented). Sissako’s strategy has three prongs – the action is set primarily in the courtyard of a house in one of the poorer districts of the Malian capital, Bamako. In fact, this is the house where Sissako grew up and where up to 25 members of his family and associates have lived at any one time. In this courtyard he stages the trial of the IMF and the World Bank, who are accused from the dock by an array of African writers, academics and ordinary people. The court is conducted by real-life advocates – in French (spoken clearly at a pace that even I can understand, in parts). Some of the Africans speak in local languages. This play on language use is part of the political strategy of the film. There are Africans fluent in cogent argument in French legal language and Africans representing local issues. While the court hearings are taking place, life in the compound goes on as usual.
A couple live in the house and the woman goes off to sing in a cabaret. Her unemployed husband stays home attempting to learn Hebrew so that if an Israeli Embassy ever arrives in this Muslim country, he will have an advantage applying for the post of security guard! Their marriage is falling apart and the husband even tries evangelical Christianity as some form of succour. Outside the gate local women are dyeing cloth (an activity which also spills over into the courtyard) and there are other narratives too, with a policeman looking for a missing gun and a video cameraman touting for business as well as a man who is seriously ill, requiring drips and proper medical aid. Most of these characters ignore the trial – the young men outside the compound disconnect the tannoy relaying the court proceedings. The third aspect of the presentation is a spoof spaghetti western seemingly appearing on television one night during the trial. ‘Death in Timbuktu’ features a group of bandits (including the director under a pseudonym and the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman) and a ‘man with no name’ character played by Danny Glover. Sissako, like many African youths in the 1970s watched cheap action pictures from France and Italy (and probably Hollywood and Hong Kong). By creating this spoof, he is referring to the Africans who have conspired to kill and starve their own people.
Sissako is an interesting director with his Russian training and an obvious knowledge of African and European cinema. I was reminded of two or three other filmmakers from different traditions in watching a film that is always full of surprises – including several jokes. My favourite moment was when, outside the compound, a woman is being literally sown into her constricting, corset-like, wedding dress (French style white) while over the tannoy a witness argues that economically the North is “crushing the Negro” (his language perhaps consciously referring to the ‘Négritude’ movement with Aimé Césaire being namechecked). At the end of the film, the white wedding dress is recalled with a second image of older women in white mourning clothes for a funeral. I can see references to Sembène Ousmane in some of the characterisation and depictions of local culture. The approach also seems to draw on the work of fellow Mauritanian/Malian/French director Med Hondo as well as the political films of Jean-Luc Godard. The spaghetti western scene reminded me of Vent d’est (1969) in which Godard uses the western to explore the machinery of cinema and the slugfest between Hollywood and what he calls ‘Mosfilm’ as seen by the Maoist Dziga-Vertov Group. Sissako’s film is far too conventional and subtle to count as ‘counter cinema’ in the Godardian sense, but it still makes audiences think. I’m going to go back and check out some of the other allusions I think I missed the first time round.