Written by Caballero Oscuro
Bamako follows a mock trial pitting African civil society against its debtors at the World Bank and the IMF, playing out against the backdrop of a typical village home in the African nation of Mali. It’s a highly innovative and politically charged concept, but it loses its way in execution.
The film succeeds in conveying some sobering statistics about the crushing nature of Africa’s debt, none more powerfully than the fact that many African nations shell out more than 40% of their annual budget to debt repayment but only around 10% to building their own infrastructure. With this heavy burden firmly in place, the African argument is that these nations are just working to repay the World Bank and IMF rather than furthering their ability to support themselves without foreign intervention. The Bank obviously has a solid case to collect on the debt, but at what price to the long-term health of the continent?
Writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako expands the film’s focus to the neighborhood activity surrounding the trial, showing the citizens going about their daily routines and incorporating a few of their minor plotlines into the film. None of the villager stories add up to much other than providing a bit of local flavor, although pains are taken to show the hardships they endure that might be lessened if the national debt disappeared.
Real lawyers and judges were used in the court scenes, while the villagers were a mix of professional actors and people from the neighborhood. The trial takes place in an open courtyard and is filmed in a documentary style with no scene interruptions, while the village life is filmed like fictional scenes with multiple angles, master shots, and a conventional script. The mix of fiction and reality feels like an odd juxtaposition at times, but it’s an interesting approach that gives the film an innovative feel.
In addition to the villager stories, Sissako includes a few minutes of a TV show the natives are watching, a completely mystifying interlude that features Danny Glover as a cowboy. It has no relation to anything else presented in the film, and makes little sense on its own, seemingly serving only as a platform to get Glover’s name in the film.
While the film makes its case, the end result isn’t satisfying. There’s no payoff because the trial judgement has no impact, it serves solely as a way to inform the rest of the world of the dire African situation. Also, the village life isn’t particularly interesting, mostly serving as a distraction from the main proceedings rather than functioning as parables of the impact of the nation’s finances. The film may function as a starting point for further discussion on the nature and impact of world debt, but it simply doesn’t offer a very compelling viewing experience on its own.
Bamako is now playing in select markets.