The brilliant director Abderrahmane Sissakou grew up in Mali and has named two of his films after Malian cities: Bamako and Timbuktu. Watching these two remarkable films recently over one weekend in the sequence they were made was a moving and memorable experience.
In Bamako (2006) we spend most of our time in a busy traditional open courtyard in Mali’s capital where the World Bank is on trial. Judges preside, lawyers give impassioned speeches and witnesses testify in a setting where people are also following their daily routines, collecting water from a well, caring for children, dyeing fabric, buying and selling and trying to hold relationships together.
This fantastical trial is presented as the most natural thing in the world. A powerful case is made against the conditions of World Bank and IMF loans and the devastating consequences of these on basic public infrastructure and services such as education and health. The speeches made by the activists, intellectuals and lawyers might seem rather didactic but their proximity to everyday life serves to integrate this great global drama of debt and economic injustice into the individual human dramas without any sense that we are being lectured. Disruption and tragedy are mainly second-hand, referenced via the trial but they are not completely absent from the very touching human story of the singer Mele and her husband Chaka.
Nothing is dramatized, romanticised or exaggerated. A major political debate about how best to promote human development in Africa is simply being held in one of the places where the failure of the current world order to achieve this is felt most acutely. There is no rush and Sissakou allows his characters the time to be themselves and occupy the screen with their lives and feelings. The juxtapositions of global and local are handled lightly and without excessive signposting.
The coverage of the trial makes no attempt to be even-handed. The case against the World Bank is compelling and we assume the verdict will be damning. However, without anger or rancour, the Bank’s victims ask simply that it should honour its mission to benefit humanity and do the job it set out to do. We see Africa seeking justice rather than vengeance.
Some of the speakers refer briefly in their evidence to the fact that among the consequences of undermining the social infrastructure are alienation, violence and extremism, in one case referring to the terrorist ‘fireballs’ of Al-Quaeda (AQ).
By the time we get to Timbuktu (2014), the residents of the historic city in North-Eastern Mali are experiencing at first hand these consequences. Their city is occupied by Ansar Dine, an AQ-style group. This beautiful film has the same matter of fact documentary feel as Timbuktu but the human impact of oppression is more explicit and the expression of resistance is more subdued.
The history of this occupation and any conflict which led to it are not explained. People’s daily acts of resistance, from the imam to the fish-sellers are shown for what they are, expressions of frustration pushing at boundaries rather than grand heroic gestures. Faced with a totalitarian system, the people are stoical and long-suffering but are not prepared to give total submission. The occupiers operate in a brutal and dehumanising way but are not themselves shown as dehumanised or one-dimensional. We are able to see them as victims themselves of an imposed and alien absolutism.
The film offers scenes of great power and beauty but doesn’t manipulate or pull at our heartstrings. For example the fine, defiant, balletic game of football played by a group of young men without a ball, because football is forbidden, avoids excessive sentiment and feels completely realistic. There is terrible and graphic violence as well as a deep insight into the life of the nomadic Tuareg herdsman Kidane and his family.
The trajectory of these two films can be seen as a distinctly depressing one. Faced with injustice, we seem to move from the possibility of loud and articulate public defiance rooted in popular debate to the constrained and limited acts of personal defiance within an oppressive totalitarian regime. But throughout, the strength of the human spirit shines through in both films and even Timbuktu can be read as a message of hope.
These are two films that will leave an indelible mark on everyone who sees them.
Film review: Berkeley and the promise of the public university (January 2015)