Film number six is Bamako (2006) by respected Malian/Mauritanian film-maker Abderrahmane Sissako. I bought this film during my first go round at this ‘challenge’. After I saw and enjoyed Finye at the Africa in Motion film festival a couple of years ago I was pleased to discover that there were a fair number of Malian films easily commercially available in the UK and also a decent amount of academic literature in English which is always a good combination when it comes to my own obsessions with particular national cinemas.
Although there certainly wasn’t an African cinema course or unit run when I was attending it, my local university library has a decent selection of books on African cinema – I presume from this that there is now a unit run as the number of books on this topic is vastly increased since I was a student. Most focusing on general topics like post-colonialism or gender issues, but a few focusing on the outputs of individual countries like Nigeria, Morocco and South African, though the major focus is definitely Francophone Africa and at that Sub-Saharan. (In fact I found a couple of books on the subject in French on today’s visit)
All this really boils down to being able to get a bit of background of the filmic and narrative traditions the film operates within, along with a bit of insight into the director’s mindset. As one book featured an interview with Abderrahane Sissako and another devoted a short chapter to examining his work. Though unfortunately it came out the same year as Bamako so doesn’t talk about that film – but considering the difficulty I sometime have finding more than a passing reference in a book or a wikipedia stub about the directors of some of the films I’ve reviewed, it’s positively glorious. However, the discussion of Heremakono/Waiting for Happiness did help to relieve some of the confusion I had surrounding the narrative, or apparent lack thereof in the film.
Sissako himself has said that, “what interests me in people is their present state, the moment when I’m face to face with someone.” He doesn’t feel the need to provide context for his characters and Bamako is at once overflowing with context and utterly lacking in it. The story of Melé and Chaka does not so much as intertwine with the court case it reflects as it does fit around it. Much like his previous film the narrative is fluid and elusive. Much of his earlier work featured a voice-over and I found that I missed the presence of a narrator here. Not that I think it would necessarily be a better film with a narrator – it’s a good film without it – but that I felt the absence of one, as the conventional signposts of narrative cinema are absent and I was definitely having difficulties navigating. So I suppose the best advice I could give if you are considering whether to watch this film or not is: if you’re only accustomed to Western cinema prepare to be in a completely different narrative tradition. It’s not a film that will hold your hand along the way, you get all the necessary information and it expects you to figure the rest out yourself. I know that I struggled with that part of the film but I think that was more of a failing on my part than that of the film.
The film involves several different people singing songs in Bambara, but the copy of the film I was watching did not have subtitles for the song lyrics so I couldn’t help but feel that there was an important element of the film I was missing out on and perhaps that they would have cast more light on some of the metaphors that remained a bit of a mystery to me.
On a completely shallow note, I have to say: unexpected Danny Glover! There’s a whole sequence where the audience watch the same film – a Western – as a group of children in the film called Death in Timbuktu. I’m not entirely sure what it’s significance to the rest of the narrative was, but I must confess, I would probably have watched the rest of it had it been a real film. Danny Glover as a sort of ‘Man with No Name’ character is unexpectedly compelling, who’d have thought?