I have a different idea of a universal. It is of a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all.
— Aimé Césaire, “Letter to Maurice Thorez”
“Words are something they can seize you in your heart. It’s bad if you keep them inside.” Turned away from the mock trial that forms the center of Bamako, an elderly would-be witness insists that words might not only express ideas and feelings, but also, that they must be released. Just so, the film is full of words — in testimony, in song lyrics, in comments made by weary trial observers. “The goat has its ideas and so does the hen,” says the old man as he does as he sits down.
At a time when Michael Moore’s Sicko is challenging the corruptions of the US health insurance system, Abderrahmane Sissako’s beautiful, evocative film reminds you that similar abuses are worldwide. Set in the Hamdallaye neighborhood in Mali, the movie stages a harangue against the West’s diverse abuses of Africa, naming the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and G8 as perpetrators. Africans suffer from lack of education, health care, and basic human services, asserts Bamako, leading to a population that feels “alienated and depraved.”
The speeches — heartfelt and specific — are intercut with scenes of daily life (the videotaping of a wedding procession, children bathing children, women workers creating and dyeing cotton fabrics) and symbolic melodrama. Melé (Aïssa Maïga) is a bar singer whose husband Chaka (Tiécoura Traoré) is out of work. Each night he stays home with their young daughter, and each day he watches his wife as she leaves for work. This week, as he is also watching the trial, Melé passes through the courtyard, pausing each morning to have her colorful dress tied up by the guard who happens to be standing close to her. Chaka says nothing, but his fatigue and disappointment are abundantly visible.
Chaka’s muted pain alludes obliquely to the silencing of African nations by the “world” bodies who decide for them what is best, using their inabilities to pay off impossible debts as emblems of their “unreliability.” As everyone can see the trouble between Melé and Chaka, so everyone views the dysfunctions of African economies, social and financial. Disturbingly intimate, the morning ritual simultaneously exposes and laments Chaka’s sense of loss (also underlined in the couple’s wedding portrait, poignant evocation of a long-gone past happiness). It also demonstrates Bamako‘s primary narrative method, contrasting and connecting the diurnal and the spectacular, the private and public means by which life is lived.
As Chaka, unable to communicate with his wife, listens to court testimonies, the focus returns repeatedly to “communication” in its many forms — collective and individual, direct and indirect, truthful and misleading. Witnesses decry the dishonesty that underlies the formation of African debts and privatization. While one avocat for the prosecution lays out the crisis inherent in African national budgets — the imbalance between the single digit percentages allowed for social services as opposed to the huge numbers needed to pay down the national debts — Chaka and the photographer Falaï (Habib Dembélé) carry on their own conversation. Falaï explains the imbalances of his own work, that he makes money by shooting weddings, crime scenes, and funerals, and prefers the latter: “The faces of people who talk don’t interest me,” he sighs, “There’s no truth in them. I prefer the dead. They’re truer.”
The camera cuts from his dismal assessment to a statement on the witness stand by Madame Traoré (Aminata Traoré), opposing the “idea that Africa’s key characteristic is her poverty. She is the victim of her riches.” The continent’s exploitation by the West, she says, results in an ongoing process of “pauperization.” In this, she continues, “You pinpoint the mechanisms and Bush is at the heart of them… I say that the West has created and imposed two fears on itself, terrorism and immigration. Let’s stay calm. We must stop presenting the problems’ causes as the solution.”
Much as Falaï has commended the sad truth of death, Madame Traoré’s appraisal of the G8’s “structural adjustment” illustrates the lack of options presented by the self-interested West. If the argument sounds broad and abstract, the effects are excruciatingly particular and material. During one break in the proceedings, villagers watch a film on TV, a Western starring Danny Glover as a cowboy who rides into town and takes out the marauders who are killing women and children. Titled “Death in Timbuktu,” the cinematic interlude offers bleak, if obvious, commentary on the machinations of the West. Though the World Bank is supposed to be “humane,” its decisions have been consistently “inhumane” — death again and again.
Asking for independence, presenting themselves as humble and dignified, the representatives for Mali condemn the “Trojan horse of financial capitalism” that has granted Western institutions apparently perpetual access to African riches. (Even water has been privatized, notes one prosecutor.) As the witnesses and attorneys speak, they make clear the power of words. When at last the old man from the film’s start stands to sing near the end, his anguish and hope are both undeniable.