Bamako: doing politics on screen
I’m the sort of person who finds the discussion about land collectivisation in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, gripping and moving. I am aware that this makes me weird in many people’s eyes, in particular those students who I force to endure all 17 minutes of it on my British Cinema module. Fuck ’em , I say, although they’re not the only ones with a low tolerance threshold when it comes to the explicit expression of politics in film and television drama.
Filmmakers like Loach regularly get accused of didacticism or of peddling old fashioned propaganda but the truth is you’d be hard pushed to find a film that isn’t ideological on some level. For instance the causal agent of classical cinema is conducive to the myth of individual sovereignty that underpins capitalism and the romantic conclusions that are a feature of many films sustain the idiotic assumption that it is possible to somehow transcend the social. The things is, to accuse Sleepless in Seattle of propagating the sort ideas that underpin capitalism is to leave yourself open to the accusation of being a right miserable old bollocks.
This perhaps wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the hegemony of classical cinema, usually associated with Hollywood, had competitors and alternatives. Other national cinemas and film movements sought to distinguish themselves aesthetically and politically from US product. However in recent times foregrounding politics in film has been unpopular, perhaps the triumph of neo-liberalism rendering the cinematic interrogation of capitalism and imperialism seemingly pointless. As a consequence politicised national cinemas and film movements have been consumed by the commercial category ‘world cinema’ that presents the films of Others like an exotic smörgåsbord board for the delectation of North American and European connoisseurs.
Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako (2006) is a film you’ll find filed under ‘world cinema’ at your HMV, although the film’s political ambition means that it exceeds that label. Made in the wake of the 2005’s G8 conference at Gleneagles the genius of the film is that imagines putting the IMF and World Bank on trial in the backyard of a Mali house, where these institutions stand accused of impoverishing Africa. Various people give testimony and evidence, while around them the people who live around the yard get on with their lives, or in one instance gets on with the process of dying. Others are getting married; some are working. One couple Mélé, a night club singer, and her unemployed, unhappy husband, Chaka are in the process of breaking up. It’s the juxtaposition of domestic melodrama of these everyday lives and the documentary realism of the trial that makes the film so fascinating. It allows Sissako the opportunity not only to present us with a film about politics, and the exploitation of Africa specifically, but it also allows the film to ruminate on the problems of doing politics on screen and engaging people with explicitly political discourse.
In an acknowledgement of how ordinary people might often regard public affairs, the inhabitants of the Malian house are frequently distracted or disinterested in the political arguments taking place in their midst, preoccupied with their own private affairs. But even those who are involved with the trial are often at a disadvantage. The proceedings are conducted in French, a language that requires interpretation for some of the witnesses and means that their own testimonies need translating. In any case, how do you articulate the plight of Africa? Or as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak asks, can the subaltern speak? And by extension can a film give a voice to the oppressed in any meaningful way? This problem of representation is highlighted imaginatively when a school teacher is called before the court to give evidence and despite prompting stands for sometime without uttering a word before returning to his seat, this moment of uncomfortable, awkward silence an apparent protest. Later a farmer berates the court in a rousing chant, the words of which require no subtitles and are given none, so clear is the man’s meaning in the angry, impassioned delivery. The other evidence is provided by figures from African civil society, who play themselves and improvise their testimonies. It gives the film an urgency, authenticity and political power that I have seldom witnessed in other recent films. Watch the trailer here and then lay your hands on a copy of the DVD.