Mali: On-Screen Platform for the Voiceless

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Sometimes it seems that the Western powers, the multinationals and the banks get away with murder, confident that no one can challenge them. Anti-capitalists rage that the impoverishment of Africa is a crime and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) should be put on trial. I spoke to director Abderrahmane Sissako whose forthcoming film, Bamako, literally puts them in the dock.

In a surreal contrast, a formal trial - with robes, lawyers, witnesses and cross examination - takes place in a domestic courtyard in Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa, while everyday life continues all around. Women fetch water from the standpipe. Someone is close to death with no money for medical care; a couple marry; another relationship breaks down as the husband can't find work. A workshop of fabric dyers toil in the background.

Sissako explained, "All the witnesses are real. All the lawyers are real lawyers. There are very few professional actors in the film. I also wanted civil society to be present. For me that is a juster way to show African culture - as a culture aware of what is happening to it. That courtyard is where my family lives, where I spent my childhood. When I decided to make this film about a trial, I decided to place it in the courtyard to give it a human element."

Witnesses range from government ministers to farmers. One ironic point is precisely that no such court exists, where African activists can be heard and the sly sophistry of the rulers is ridiculed.

Aïssata Tall Sall, as a prosecuting counsel, gives a context to the debt crisis, "Between 1992 and 1997 in Kenya, when the national budget allocated 12.6 percent to the basic social services - health, education and infrastructure - 40 percent of that same budget was devoted to repayment of foreign debt. In Zambia, when 6.7 percent was spent on basic social services, 40 percent was again used to pay off the debt."

Sissako said, "We are told to privatise water. No national organisation can buy it, so for instance we end up with Burkina Faso's water being bought up by the multinational Veolia - formerly Vivendi. This is the real reason why they are privatising. The World Bank is not the world's bank. It is the bank of a few countries that have the power. They want to make money for themselves.

"Africa should position itself like South America, or like Asia did in the past. Malaysia refused structural adjustment offered by the IMF after the 1997 crisis. And economically Malaysia has managed much better than the countries that accepted."

Pauperisation

A witness, Aminata Traoré, says, "I oppose the proposition that Africa's key characteristic is its poverty. I prefer to talk about pauperisation. In talking about pauperisation you pinpoint the mechanisms, and Bush is at the heart of them. The West has created and imposed two fears on itself: terrorism and immigration. We must stop presenting the problem's causes as the solution. Everything can be sold or bought. Pay or die. That's the West's lesson that we impose on ourselves."

Death is made concrete in another witness's story. He talks about being one of 30 Malian migrant labourers trying to get to Spain to look for work, but instead being dumped in the Sahara for seven days without food or water. He is one of the ten people he knows survived.

The film cuts between a dramatisation of the desperate men lost in the desert and the fabric dyers in the courtyard staining a sheet red. In one of many arresting images, the dye washes down the drain like blood.

In another striking scene an ex-teacher takes the witness stand, looks grimly at the members of the court, then turns and walks out without saying a word. I asked if he too was a real activist.

Sissako said, "He was my neighbour. I've always had political discussions with him. He's been unemployed for the last six years. I wanted to bring him in the film to talk about his life, but he felt he'd said it all already, so he appeared as one of those who witness by their silence."

There is an odd interlude when a "Spaghetti Western" appears on TV. This short pastiche features Hollywood star Danny Glover in a shootout with cowboys representing the Western banks. Sissako explained, "Danny Glover is an activist. He is passionate about Africa and injustice in general. The Western is presented metaphorically, revealing a dimension that doesn't emerge in the court, that of co-responsibility. We see that the cowboys are both black and white. When killing has to be done there is a black person who shoots the teacher."

The film is full of anger, but there is little about what should be done. Sissako said, "The role of a film is to show the reality and to allow the possibility of discussion. Factually everything in the film has already been written about in books. I'm not an economist, or a politician so I can't propose solutions. I just show the injustice." However, he added, "It isn't just a matter of Africa refusing to pay the debt. See who has been profiting from it. These people should be paying money back to Africa."


Bamako will come out next year