Have you ever had a friend who's so smart and eloquent that you enjoy simply listening to them speak? Well, that pretty much sums up the experience of watching Abderrahmane Sissako's 2006 film "Bamako". In it, the Mauritanian director stages a mock trial to dig into the various issues affecting true statehood in many African nations.
"Bamako" refers to the capital of Mali, which is the setting for the trial at the heart of the film. Locals and foreigners alike have gathered to debate a pertinent issue facing the country and its African neighbours. Specifically, should the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund be held accountable for the prevalence of poverty in Third World countries? As various individuals step up to put forth their arguments, the film evolves into a thorough debate of politics, economics and sociology.
Sissako has long been an advocate for human rights, particularly for persons living in the developing world. His filmography reflects this passion, making socially conscious films that often address the struggles of life in various African countries. In his own words, when he makes a film "it must have a meaning, a universal message, it must alert and concern all of humanity". This filmmaking philosophy certainly comes across clearly in "Bamako", where he elaborates on Africa's plight in compelling detail.
"Bamako" is a courtroom drama in the purest sense of the term. There's no gathering of evidence, no investigation. Sissako trusts his audience to approach the film with a basic knowledge of the topic (or at the very least, a level of interest), lest you be left behind. Most of the plot takes place in a rustic yard setting, resembling a town hall meeting rather than any matter of international importance.
This quaint setting is part of the film's beauty however. The idea of bringing together highly successful Europeans with more humble Malians acts to level the playing field. It's thus a rare, fascinating opportunity for everyone's perspective to be given equal weight (though its argued in the film that it's skewed towards the Africans). With that, the place is set for a passionate debate from both sides. As the plot unfolds, all the pertinent topics are discussed: corruption, colonization, capitalism, exploitation, poverty, national debt, hunger, AIDS. No stone is left unturned and all of it is presented without any stylistic embellishments.
It's a wonder then, that "Bamako" manages to sustain audience interest for its nearly 2 hour runtime. It barely deviates from its straightforward court setting, with only a pair of inconsequential subplots to speak of (the life of a local bar singer and a fake Western that's shown to a captive audience). Such is the power of good writing though. Demanding cineastes may desire something more dynamic (myself included), but there's value to be had in this sphere of political cinema. Sissako has a lot to say about this world and his words are very powerful.