October 1, 2006
From the opening image of the first witness called to testify in Bamako, the village griot - a tribal ancient and tale teller who passes on his culture's collective history from generation to generation through the orality of ancient chants - who, paradoxically, is unable to communicate his testimony (and, in broader implication, the testimony of his people) in his own native country of Mali because of logistical difficulties with translating his indigenous language to French, the country's official language for governmental and bureaucratic affairs, Abderrahmane Sissako unveils his critical, impassioned, caustic, and uncompromising approach to examining the repercussions of globalization and subsidized trade on the developing nations of post-colonial Africa. Framed against the backdrop of quotidian life in a Bamako village as couples marry and separate, cloth dyers attend to their business, the unemployed spend their idle time waiting for something to happen (or immersing in speculative studies in the hopes of gaining future employment opportunity), and local villagers alternately look on at the proceedings with equal bemusement, apathy, and tedium, Sissako launches an allegorical, provocative, and bracing indictment against the World Bank, the G8, and the International Monetary Fund for transgressions against the African continent that have led to systematic underdevelopment, insoluble debt, cultural marginalization, and continued reliance on international charity. Like the incongruous juxtaposition between the lives of the villagers and the intrusive tribunal, the disparity between the issues presented by the self-appointed arbiters of justice and the society that they represent is also a tenuous balance that confronts the very notion of indigenous cultural solvency at the beginning of the 21st century, as the sub-Saharan nations stagnate between economic development and exploitation, bureaucratic efficiency and corruption, modernization and cultural extinction, global interdependence and neediness. This dilemma is inferentially encapsulated in the film within a film Western sequence (with a cameo by actor Danny Glover who co-executive produced the film) that incisively channels the spirit of Nigerien film pioneer, Moustapha Alassane's Le Retour d'un Aventurier, the first native African film ever made that, ironically, depicted all the conventions of a Hollywood Western plot (albeit with African cowboys chasing zebras instead of wild horses). In evoking the specter of Alassane's seminal, but intrinsically derivative film, Sissako traces the inequitable history of western subservience and imitation to the figurative beginning, a sobering imputation that the socio-economic problems of post-colonial Africa are not only the residual legacy of economic imperialism and unfair trade, but also culturally self-inflicted in the naïve imitation of an unattainable western ideal.