When Hollywood's response to the myriad crises plaguing the African continent is to churn out well-meaning issue pictures that are little more than low-rent action narratives grafted onto exoticized, strife-ridden African settings (see: "Catch a Fire," "Blood Diamond"), films like "Bamako" become all the more essential. Where Edward Zwick's "Blood Diamond" betrayed the grossly unsophisticated paternalism that's the wellspring of Western goodwill towards Africa, Abderrahmane Sissako's inside-out vision of the continent's troubles offers a refreshingly multifaceted view. Dire situations call for drastic measures - the economics of aid has ensured Africa remains impoverished enough to constantly require major assistance, which often comes with conditions that only further impoverishment. "Bamako" tackles the agents of this iniquity head-on, putting the World Bank, IMF, and G8 on literal trial in Mali's titular capital city. Would that it were so easy.
It's agitprop at its best, only, in Sissako's hands, the film isn't marked by strident didacticism, and the outrage, though palpable, is often left bubbling under the surface. His 1998 "Life on Earth" bore one of those perfectly apt titles; in 60 or so leisurely minutes spent entirely within one small village, the film captured nothing more or less than that. (What better goal for cinema?) "Bamako"'s employment of the courtroom drama might lead one to believe that the filmmaker, so adept at bringing the rhythms of the everyday to screen, has opted here for a different mode of address. What's so rewarding about "Bamako" is how, even as Sissako delves into his trial, he manages to weave the village in. He rarely moves his camera, but through incisive cutting moves fluidly from the makeshift court to witness villagers craning to listen, an interruption from a large wedding party or to note the passing of a villager or goat through the middle of the proceedings to reach home. By the end of the film, he's almost backgrounded the trial entirely among his panoply of lives being lived - and in doing so has shown us the true stakes at play. Where it's fine for dueling dignitaries to argue and litigate, there are still the people of Mali, and Africa, waiting, hoping for relief, enduring.
As necessary as it is, it's questionable to the extent to which a film like "Bamako" makes a dent in Mali's theaters, and Sissako cleverly nods to this state of affairs by having his villagers watch an internationally coproduced African Western on TV starring Danny Glover and Palestinean filmmaker Elia Suleiman - surely their inclusion helped get the film financed, and in placing them at such an odd angle to the film's body, he's leveled one of his slyest critiques. Even if "Bamako" remains largely a festival film that makes less of a dent in the United States than one would like, hopefully its critique will resonate with other filmmakers and lead to a more responsible cinematic approach to Africa. "Bamako" is valuable because it so eloquently and succinctly lays out the major issues facing Africa in the era of globalization. It's marvelous because it manages to dramatize these issues cinematically even as its more Socratic trial sections unspool. More than worthy of inclusion in the ranks of recent films like "Lord of War" and "Darwin's Nightmare," which attempt to grapple with the enormity of a continent rendered little more than the leftover waste of capitalistic excess, "Bamako" represents a powerful protest. Now it's up to audiences to show up and listen.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures.]