Bamako Review

Genre: Neorealism/Legal Drama/Slice-Of-Life
Year Released: 2006
Distributor: New Yorker Films
Origin: Mali/Mauritania/France/USA
Running Time: 115 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Waiting for Happiness, 3 Faces, Life and Debt, Muyunrangabo, Felicite
Notes: N/A
Fun Facts:
-Bamako is the capital and largest city in Mali. Over 2.7 million people live in that city today. The name of the city actually translates to “crocodile tail” in the Bambara language and even the city seal has three caimans in the emblem. Some famous people associated with that city include Aya Nakamura, Ali Farka Toure, and Ibrahim Kante to name a few.

-Bamako had a couple of firsts when it came to getting some awards. It was the inaugural Film Award of the Council of Europe at the Istanbul International Film Festival and it was the first time a Mauritanian much less a Black filmmaker or an African-born director won a Lumieres Award for the French-Language Film category

-Danny Glover executive produced this movie and even makes a cameo among other actors in the “Death In Timbuktu” fake movie within a movie. Speaking of the title…

-Hilarious in Hindsight: Director Abderrahmane Sissako would actually make a movie eight years later called Timbuktu which I reviewed which is interesting given the previous fact. Looks like Sissako made two movies named after Malian cities. Okay, I know he’s half Malian, but it’s something my geography nerd brain couldn’t ignore.

-The singer Mele is played by Senegalese-French actress Aissa Maiga. She was also the first Black actress of African origin (side note: She’s also of half-Malian descent like Abderrahamane Sissako) to be nominated for a Cesar Award for Best Actress. Some of Maiga’s other filmography examples include The African Doctor, Code Unknown, and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

-Most of the actors used their real names while playing characters and the lawyers were actually played by real life attorneys.

Once again, we step into the works of Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako here at Iridium Eye. While I wouldn’t call him my favorite filmmaker of all time, there was something about his works that drew me back for some reason and it’s not just because of getting more African film representation. His neorealism and usage of a lot of subtlety did intrigue me even if I wasn’t fully amazed with the first film I saw of his with Waiting for Happiness. I’ve seen and reviewed other directors who have that aesthetic such as Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kiarostami, or Ousmane Sembene to name a few, but there was this authenticity and observational aspect about Sissako’s work that I couldn’t put my finger on it. I’m back at it again with his filmography to see how his other works fare.

This time around, we get to see some stories straight from Mali’s capital city.

Bamako obviously takes place in that aforementioned West African metropolis and one of the busiest areas going on in the film is local court. This isn’t in a typical courthouse or government building though. These trials are outside in an enclosed yet open air environment with fans blaring, people seated in chairs, and the dialogue is carried through speakers on the exterior, so even the most random people on the street can hear what’s going on. These trials going on involve debates at best or cases at worst that range from the national budget, Mali getting screwed over by World Bank and/or the IMF, migration to Europe, worker exploitation, and poverty. The locals are pleading their cases to the Malian elite as well as some French people in this outdoor courtroom. Intersecting this action, there are people in Bamako such as a strained couple involving a bar singer who’s husband is unemployed, a jaded photographer/videographer who has a deadpan interest in photographing the deceased, and a man who is critically ill and refused decent health care. All these stories intersect and collide in this major African city.

This was a welcome addition from Sissako’s portfolio. I was certainly expecting one kind of movie, but another one managed to happen. I thought it would mostly be about the bar singer Mele and her family which still happens, but I saw the bigger picture by having the multiple court scenes. The people are struggling and are doing their best to make their lives or Mali at large better after they’ve been struggling with poverty, lack of health care, dangerous work situations and other things that plagued the country. There were some fascinating arguments presented on both sides. While someone like Sissako has a history of resisting colonialism in low-key ways in the other movies I’ve reviewed of his and there are inarguable points as to why it’s a bad thing, not all the characters come off as untouchable debaters or as strawman critics. The locals do bring up strong cases, but there are times where they appeal to much to emotion. On the flipside, you have the people arguing against them actually acknowledge some of the ills (poverty, migration, health issues, etc.) while still making their cases. This could’ve easily been to unilateral in it’s portrayal. The acting was great with how everyone sold their emotions in the different scenes. I do have to give them props for actually using the word “neocolonialism” in the script which is a needed touch and it’s not done in a preachy way. One highlight that I thought was subtly funny was the debate scene later on in the film where one of the white lawyers starts to argue about the condition of the Malians. It starts out very rousing while he makes some inarguable points and the people applaud him a couple of times. He sounds like a genuine ally at first. However, that adulation is thrown out the window where he mentions that Africans “know nothing about the outside world” and the Black audience quickly give him the side-eye for the rest of his argument which was awesome. That was one of the most realistic scenes of covert white left-wing racism I’ve seen in film. As much as it’s easy to criticize the more overt right-wing side of racism (it gets very obvious when it comes from Americans, let’s be honest here), but let’s not pretend that both parties are guilty even if they have different methods of it, and this was also a subtly brutal deconstruction of white man’s burden there. With the other people living their lives, the metaphors are quite subtle such as someone turning off a speaker whenever the court cases get too morbid or how the Mele wants to go back to Dakar (funny how her actress is originally from that city) as a way to avoid the struggles of living in Mali for example. This was a great way to show and not tell when it comes to serious issues like the ones presented here. The production was just right with the natural filmmaking as well as the camera scenes of the videographer or how the movie on TV was the highest-budgeted looking thing in the film. The music while sparse was wonderful with a mix of afro-funk and traditional rhythms from time to time.

Bamako doesn’t feel like it’s all united for the people, goals, or faith if anyone gets the reference to the motto. The court scenes did work on a literal and metaphorical level, but this could bore or confuse some viewers who don’t know or care about geopolitics. They go in depth with numbers and real-life examples, but this could go over some viewer’s heads. Also, don’t expect the court scenes to be like a Law & Order episode with the drama, okay? The approach is more grounded than that. There was a detachment from the other characters where there was just enough to know about them, but not enough to really see them as fully fleshed out. It was hard to keep track of all the names because most of them are rarely mentioned as such with the exception of the French lawyer Rappaport and even then his name wasn’t mentioned that many times in the nearly two-hour runtime. Much like Waiting for Happiness which does cover some similar topics (the migration and aftereffects being one common denominator), the “day in the life” approach may not be for all viewers how we see the courtroom stuff before transitioning to how others live in Mali’s capital city. Even the ending with the funeral can feel a bit random for viewers not used to world cinema and how it ties into everything. This was made in the mid-00s which is starting to show with the flip phones being used by multiple characters or with a clearly aged camcorder used. My biggest issue with the movie was more to do with New Yorker Film’s subtitle work or lack thereof. The biggest cases would be the Bambara dialogue. I don’t speak that language, but I can certainly tell the difference between that, French, and English. It made sense not to translate the first court scene where one of the locals has an interpreter translating what the judge said from French into Bambara where the former dialogue is translated. However, the songs were not translated and it got VERY distracting during that surreal scene where the old man is angrily singing in Bambara to the judge for several minutes and I have no clue what he’s singing about. New Yorker Films, do better. I know Bambara isn’t as widely spoken as French or English, but that didn’t stop you from translating African movies where the dialogue was mostly in an indigenous language such as Wolof (Mandabi and Borrom Sarret come to mind), Hassaniya Arabic (Waiting for Happiness), or even Bambara itself with Moolaade. This is lazy on them to do so and the selective Bambara subtitling was mind-numbing.

This work from Abderrahmane Sissako was another good example of what this filmmaker can do. The neaorealist style works very well with the subject matter and the court cases had the right amount of messaging without coming off as didactic to the audience. The acting was on point and the production was stellar in it’s grounded approach. However, this isn’t a movie for everyone as some people could find some aspects to be boring and could be confused by the lack of subtitling of multiple Bambara-language scenes including a major plot relevant point in the courtroom even if it was weird when it happened. I wouldn’t call Bamako a masterpiece, but the good parts definitely outweighed the bad and certainly was a challenging watch in a meaningful way.

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1 point if you’re a fan of Abderrahmane Sissako’s work.
-Add 1 point if you like edgy critiques on neocolonialism.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you want more dramatic courtroom scenes.
-Subtract 1-3 points if you want clear cut main characters.

-Great neorealism production
-Wonderful acting chops from a majority non-professional cast
-Amazing critiques of neocolonialism, poverty, and health issues in Mali

-Unintentional period piece moments are showing
-Can be overwhelming with information
-Severe omission of subtitles involving Bambara dialogue

Final Score: 8/10 points

Content Advisory: Bamako should be alright for teens and up. The topics of racism, neocolonialism, worker exploitation, and migration play a big role in the court scenes which could fly over the heads of young viewers and even some adults. There are a couple of deaths shown due to dehydration and getting shot respectively. The worst thing to happen in a content standpoint would be some female nudity during a brief breastfeeding scene.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Bamako is property of New Yorker Films. The DVD cover is from Film Actually and is property of New Yorker Films.

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