Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Talking Timbuktu

(Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali, 2006, not rated, 115 mins.)


I was very aware that from my small position, and because I make films, I have to try to be the voice of millions of people. Because of this position of unwilling spokesman, I have had to get involved in something that seems imperative to me: the need to give a voice to those who need it most, to those who need to cry out against this form of injustice.
-- Abderrahmane Sissako


Bamako alternates between the big and the small, the personal and the political. 2007 SIFF Emerging Master Abderrahmane Sissako contrasts the life of nightclub singer Mele (Cache's A/Ossa Ma/Oga) with the trial against the IMF (International Monetary Fund) taking place in her courtyard. Mele is more concerned about her young daughter and faltering marriage to the unemployed Chaka (Tiecoura Traore).

While she's at work, Chaka watches the trial which echoes, in miniature, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The plaintiff is African society. The witnesses are Bamako's townspeople. Like the singer, the residents of Mali's capitol go about their business, but follow the proceedings, with varying degrees of interest, via M*A*S*H -like loudspeakers. (About the Nigerian-born actress, A.O. Scott exults, "Ms. Ma/Oga's face and carriage make you grateful for the existence of cinema.")

The issue at hand is Africa's debt, but the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and G8 aren't Sissako's only targets. As one witness argues, the continent's citizens must
accept some degree of culpability, as well; many haven't been paying attention.
For the most part, the arguments revolve around money, which results in a variety of facts and figures. That doesn't make Bamako boring, but it does sometimes resemble an economics lesson. The testimonials, which escalate in intensity, also play more like real-life than recreated reality-born in Mauritania, the filmmaker (La Vie Sur Terre, Waiting for Happiness) got his start in the documentary realm-since several participants, like French attorney Roland Rappaport, play themselves.
Other observers, like a funeral photographer, a feisty neighbor, and a wedding
party, join Chaka on the sidelines. Sissako keeps things moving with flashbacks, brief musical interludes, and a film-within-a-film, which a group of apartment
dwellers watch on television one night after the trial has concluded for the day.
"Death in Timbuktu" features Palestinian director Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention) and executive producer Danny Glover. (Glover's participation may come as a surprise, except that he also produced Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger and Spike Lee's Get on the Bus, among other socially-conscious works.) In the film,
his cowboy watches in unhappy silence as outsiders invade an African village.
For me, it's an open question whether Bamako complements recent Hollywood productions about Africa, like The Constant Gardener, Catch a Fire, and Blood Diamond, or whether it offers an innately superior alternative (the common critical consensus). I usually avoid the major studio entries, because I don't like being told what to think, yet Bamako, though made by an African insider, is almost as didactic as-though more original and less melodramatic than-its American counterparts.
That said, I loved The Constant Gardener (mostly for the central relationship),
while I quite liked the "Cheadlicious" Hotel Rwanda, but was deeply disappointed
by John Boorman's In My Country, a well acted, but simplistic take on the Truth
and Reconciliation Commission, with Juliette Binoche as a South African poet
and Samuel L. Jackson as an American reporter-it's didacticism personified.
Then there's the question of education vs. entertainment. These goals shouldn't
be mutually exclusive, yet too often stand in opposition. In this case, Sissako tackles an important topic, but I found Bamako more intellectually than emotionally involving, which may discourage those not already invested in the subject.
Further, I don't want to over-praise the film any more than I want to belabor its shortcomings. After all, Sissako also produced one of the year's best, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's devastating Daratt (2006), part of the New Crowned Hope Series, which premiered in Seattle at SIFF (and concerns reconciliation in war-torn Chad).
This is hardly a scientific survey, but there were three people at the Saturday evening Daratt screening I attended, and three at the matinee a friend caught earlier that
day (SIFF Cinema seats 400). For some reason, African films don't tend to attract much of a local audience-it's no wonder more don't come our way. That may not be reason enough to see Bamako, but it's worth considering, and it's impossible not to be struck by the irony that Africa has never been more newsworthy, and Sissako's one filmmaker unafraid to jump headlong into the fray. Without a parachute.
The director and his Cesar-nominated star
Bamako opens at the Northwest Film Forum on Friday, 8/10. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. Talking Timbuktu is the title of the 1994 Grammy Award-winning Ry Cooder-produced album by the late Malian musician Ali Farka Toure. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from Antoine Doyen, Google Images, GreenCine, and El Mundo.


  1. Danny Glover is in a new Charles Burnett film, also set in Africa. It is called Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation and also stars Carl Lumbly as Samuel Nujoma. Unfortunately, it doesn't sound like a successful movie, at least based on the only review I've read so far, in Variety:
    However, Variety isn't always looking too far beyond box office possibilities, so it may be better than they make it sound.
    Back to the subject at hand, Sissako's Waiting for Happiness and Life on Earth are absolutely beautiful films and both are available on DVD. Highly recommended.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations! I look forward to getting caught up on Sissako's work. So sorry he wasn't able to make it to SIFF this year.

  3. I met Abderrahmane Sissako at the S A film festival in Oct 1993. We became very close. I relocated to Johannesburg at the end of 93. I kept in touch with him often calling him from public phones. We had a bit of a challenge with communication as i do not speak french. Then to my surprise he visited SA in 1996 and we met. It was such a great pleasure to see him again after 3 years. He returned to Paris and we lost contact wagain. But i still remember him on all his birthdays the 13/10. Then just this morning i though of him, and decided to surf the net, and voila, he is all over the net. Had i known, i would have probably resumed communication with him a long time ago. i would like to here from Abderrahmane again please. Vicky 27 82 387 4834