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February 28, 2007

Bamako: The Trial That Wasn’t

Posted in: Africa,Film

Melé sings

Bamako is not what it seems. Abderrahmane Sissako’s lyrical, angry film puts the IMF and World Bank on trial for crimes against Africa, quite literally. And that trail happens in lead character Melé’s back yard in Mali. If that sounds strange, it is. But you’ll forgive it because the testimony is so compelling, and that testimony is often matched with camera moves through a beautifully colorful Malian village with women washing clothes, children crying and laughing, men having afternoon tea. It brought back strong warm memories from my time in Africa.

But the key to Bamako really is in the disconnect between the fully formal court proceedings and a backyard setting that’s anything but. Midway through the film, a wedding winds its way down the court’s middle isle and interrupts the proceedings full-bore. It’s a joyous, singing celebration and the way it’s presented is so rich, but so out of place amidst stilted court formalities that it seems almost like a dream. And that was the hint that finally brought the film into focus.

The reason the trial happens in a place that’s deeply interwoven with all aspects of Malian community is that the trial is the dream, not the wedding, not the washer women, not Melé’s backyard. It’s the collective dream of everyone in the community, from Melé’s sick daughter to the elder griot who chomps at the bit to say his piece — each understanding the dream on a different level and in their own way. A collective wish of a village, a country, a continent.

When I looked at Bamako through that lens, it made sense. The beautiful kind of sense that puts a smile on your face when your mind’s eye presents a dream so fully realized. And the crushing kind of sense that knows it’s a dream that will never come to pass.

Bamako has been held over at Film Forum and it seems to keep selling out. Let’s hope that’s a good sign for wider distribution.

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