It’s all very well your favourite rock star standing up and banging on about the plight of Africans. What Abderrahmane Sissako’s new film gives is a feel of the authentic voice of Africa itself. Set in Mali, it is an impassioned plea against globalisation and the activities of western institutions like the World Bank and IMF.
This isn’t sophisticated film-making by Western standards. Rather it is a mix of dialectical debate with the raw passion of people who are helpless against the self-interest of the multinationals who have an economic stranglehold on the developing world. Throw in a spoof western and it’s a curious mix.
Sissako sets the main action in his father’s house in Bamako, the capital of French-speaking Mali. In the courtyard of the house he grew up in, where his extended family shared quarters with several other families, a trial takes place. Using real lawyers, professional actors and ordinary people who have suffered the tyranny of world economics, Sissako acts out a fantasy court case with the World Bank as defendant.
There’s a good deal of eloquent dialogue, often difficult to follow, but also a lot of passionate appealing to reason, which is quite moving at times. There are regular breaks from the stream of debate, with a loose storyline about an out of work man, Chaka (played by Tiécoura Traoré), and his bar singer wife Melé (the beautiful Aïssa Maïga). With very little dialogue we learn of his apathy towards his own plight and that of his country and her increasing frustration with the situation.
There are other incidental images of a dying man living within the housing complex and ordinary Africans going about their daily lives. In the midst of it all, this extraordinary trial is acted out.
The western, an allegory of the suppression of the people, often with their own complicity, has a guest appearance by Hollywood star Danny Glover, who is also credited as an Executive Producer of the film. Presented as a TV programme, it’s a film within a film, a device which only works partially. What you take away with you, though, is the potent image of a surplus of teachers, dealt with simply by shooting one of them. Sissako makes it a black cowboy who does the killing, so this isn’t an altogether one-sided attack on the West. Similarly, one of the most passionate speeches delivered against the World Bank during the trial is by a white lawyer.
For all the stream of polemic delivered in the form of words, words, words, there are powerful speechless incidents such as when an old man, Zegué Bamba, steps forward during the trial and sings at the court. Using song rather than speech, this extended sequence says it all about how the man feels.
I liked the film a lot and felt I was hearing something important and authentic. The unusual style makes few concessions to the conventions of western entertainment though and, while I hope people will support it, I fear it is going to struggle to find an audience.