Didactic and one-sided: strange as it may seem, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako makes each of these potentially crippling traits resolute positives. In the tradition of late-60s/early-70s Godard, Sissako approaches his subject — the disastrous failure of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank’s attempt to bring “structural adjustments” to Africa, and those organizations’ refusal to forgive the debt currently crippling recovering countries — with an unapologetically polemical and directly telegraphed viewpoint, staging a mock trial (whose verdict is never in doubt) to air likeminded Africans and European sympathizers’ grievances toward the institutions of racism and ineptitude that have contributed to the ravaging of the continent. The film’s unconventional format is risky, and ultimately doesn’t do justice to its side stage characters or awkwardly inserted Western parody, but it more than makes up for these flaws with a sustained attack — both emotional and rational — against systematized destruction visited upon the Third World by the First.
The trial takes place in humble settings, in a poor neighborhood of the titular Mali capital where bands play clubs, couples fight, the terminally sick waste away without proper care, wedding processions interrupt proceedings, and workers daydream of better futures. But the weight of this courtroom drama without consequences never abates and is in fact upheld by the ordinary surroundings. Bamako’s arguments, objections, and witness testimonies clumsily try to mimic an actual trial, but the pain on display is unfakeable — when a villager on the stand howls a plaint or another stays still in shaming silence, humanism overrides any pretensions of objective investigation. This inevitability disproves one character’s cynical idea that recording the dead is “more real” than recording the living. In Bamako, the plight of the living is as real as it gets.