Trial of the Century

There's a scene in Bamako that captures what director Abderrahmane Sissako hopes to convey better than any other moment in the film. It's when Mamadou Kanoté, a poor, elderly Malian man, belts out an impromptu song in front of a courtyard full of stone-faced lawyers and judges holding a mock trial in a middle-class couple's backyard. It's the film's powerful scene, and it's shown without a translation -- a commentary, perhaps, on what it means to say something that no one will ever care enough to take the time to understand.

Bamako, which has been showing in theaters across the United States since the spring and is now available on DVD, is named for, and set in, the capital city of Mali; it is mostly an effort to examine how the West continues, unintentionally or otherwise, to pillage Africa and call it "aid." The film shows that, amidst the problems and misunderstandings besetting the continent, an ocean of humanity goes ignored.

Sissako's father is Malian, and he grew up there, so he knows the landscape and texture of the neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital in which the film was shot. He uses the beauty of the neighborhood and the faces of its inhabitants as his canvas, to good effect. The film, executive produced by Danny Glover, is basically two tales tossed into one surreal backyard: On the one hand, there is the story of Melé and Chaka, a relatively well-to-do Malian couple whose relationship is unraveling for reasons that are never made clear; on the other, there is the trial of international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF taking place, to little fanfare, in Melé and Chaka's backyard.

The case against these institutions has always been strong; many of us who have lived abroad have witnessed the folly of international aid -- often administered in such a decadent and wasteful manner as to be essentially meaningless -- firsthand. But even if you agree with Sissako's indictment of the West, you are left to wonder why he spends so much time trying to convince his audience of all this in lengthy, dull courtroom proceedings. Those who are going to see the film are already likely going to be on his side; thus, the fact that the film trudges along with lengthy testimonies and dull statistical analysis for what seems like hours on end is puzzling.

More interesting to us is the human drama on the ground, Melé is a stunning young bar singer about to leave her unemployed husband Chaka to move back to Senegal. She leaves their home each morning to go to work, and does so just as people walk into their courtyard for the trial. She delights in picking a young boy from the crowd each morning to tie her blouse, but no explanation is ever really given for her bawdy exhibitionism. The film opens and closes with Melé singing a beautiful song that, like Kanoté 's song, is un-translated; yet unlike the elderly man's un-subtitled lament, which comes across as thematically rich and emotionally powerful, our lack of understanding of Mele's words is a problem, given that she’s the film’s heroine. For a director who can call Mali home not to translate these lyrics is disturbingly reminiscent of, for example, Steven Spielberg's decision to keep the dialogue of the kidnapped Ghanaians in Amistad un-translated even though they were the film's focus.

Back to the story: Melé's husband, Chaka, is out of work. He sits around doing nothing, occasionally studying up on his Hebrew, hoping that one day an Israeli embassy will open in Bamako that he can work at as a guard. Sissako appears to be making this small touch a comment on the absurd nature of boundless optimism, ironically common where hopelessness is an epidemic. The oddball asides and sad paradoxes of everyday life in the developing world are catalogued well, too: a police officer investigates a crime that was never committed, common in authoritarian regimes and places where gross inequality goes unchecked; at different times, a wedding and a funeral pass through the courtyard in the midst of the most pressing court proceedings, showing utter disregard the supposed gravity of the debates going on. Sissako captures well the way in which important customs in traditional cultures can often overwhelm the drab events of everyday life.

The story of the Melé and Chake is, however, sketchily drawn. Indeed, one of the oddest things about Bamako is that the most sharply rendered character is the villain, Mr. Rappaport. He's the lawyer representing the West and all the money they've thrown around, most of which fattens their own pockets in the process (something even he admits as an unfortunate byproduct of aid). He's bumbling, somewhat charming in his wit, and, because of his evil side -- we see him making an oblique but clearly bigoted comment to an African hawker of cheap goods -- is rendered arguably more human than Melé or Chaka. We don't want to like the guy, but we do, because like any flawed character, if you know him well enough, you sympathize with him. When we see Mr. Rappaport startled by an angry goat as he tries to make a phone call abroad during a break from the proceedings, we can't help but laugh at his flimsy foolhardiness. By comparison, beyond Mele's knockout beauty and Chaka's thoughtful gestures, we know almost nothing about them, their life together, or why their relationship is falling apart. They are more symbols than human characters, and even as symbols they don't quite make sense.

In fact, Sissko depicts many of the African characters in the film as symbolic of larger problems. Kanoté, the old man whose entrance into the courtyard begins the film and whose song ends it, is really, among all the competing story lines and asides, the most powerful embodiment of the movie's political indictment. The old man is among the first to show up for the trial, to testify on all that's wrong with the world. But he faces relentless exclusion. He almost doesn't get past the arbitrarily placed guard at the gate each time he tries to enter Chaka's courtyard, and he's damned lucky on several occasions that somebody with some say vouches for him and gets him in. When Kanoté finishes his passionate, impromptu plea, the courtyard trial goes on as if nothing had happened. A comment on the state of the world perhaps, but hardly a call to action -- and a rather ineffective way of getting audiences in the West, or in sub-Saharan Africa for that matter, interested in the issues Sissako raises. Should we be outraged by all this stuff? Or should we just be sucked in by the sterile nature of these archaic debates about "aid" that exist completely separate from the realities on the ground?

The film doesn't tie up too many loose ends, which seems to be how just about every good French movie I've seen prefers to leave things. Still, though it's a hodge-podge, it's one worth seeing. You'll get the sense watching it that the trial of the West, and the tribulations of impoverished people the world over, will go on, and at the same dull pace that Bamako lulls into at times. Perhaps that's his point. The film ends with the line: "My ear to the ground, I heard tomorrow pass by." For many, there will be no tomorrow, and if it does come, it will look much like the day before.