Bamako (2006)

At a time when Sicko is challenging the corruptions of the US health insurance system, Abderrahmane Sissako's beautiful, evocative film reminds you that similar abuses are worldwide.


Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Cast: Aïssa Maïga, Tiécoura Traoré, Hélène Diarra, Habib Dembélé, Magma Gabriel Konaté, Mamadou Konaté, William Bourdon, Danny Glover
Distributor: New Yorker
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: New Yorker Films
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2007-02-14 (Limited release)
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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.