Hollywood typically brings us courtroom dramas full of last-minute revelations, shocking witnesses, and actorly bombast ("You can't handle the truth!"). Abderrahmane Sissako's mighty courtroom drama "Bamako" offers none of these overheated frills.
Court is held in a multifamily courtyard in Bamako, Mali. A breeze gently covers onlookers with insects and dust. And during the proceedings villagers are likely to be seen going about their daily business peeling potatoes or transporting the children here and there. But the truth is far harder to handle in this damning and sparely made film, which kicks off Boston's excellent African film festival tonight at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Court, you see, is in session for the trial of the century -- OK, the mock trial of the century. African society is taking the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the planet's other financial institutions to task for a kind of crime against humanity: loan repayment. How, the Africans argue, can these countries expect to prosper when so much of their budgets are being spent to climb out of the red?
Populations grow poorer, mortality rates balloon, and the political strife begets refugees and leads to diasporas. The lawyers representing the institutions retort: Why would we want you to suffer? Debt forgiveness is an obvious solution, but the two sides are thinking, in part, beyond just the immediate fix. Amazingly, "Bamako" elevates this skirmish to philosophical heights without forsaking the human and political emergency of the practical matters at hand.
To a large extent, the Africans represent themselves. The witnesses range from an eloquent and impassioned writer to a frail former schoolteacher who stands powerfully speechless at the podium. The trouble with Africa in the media lately is that the news producers and Hollywood filmmakers rarely find actual Africans to speak their mind. Not only are the Malians speaking up, they're raising their voices.
More than once, this sense of self-empowerment sparks disorder in the court as members of the audience or people minding their business on the outskirts interrupt to lob their convictions like a hand grenade. This is most explosively done when one woman, furious and exasperated, crashes the action to curse the defendants. "Enough with suffering!" "Enough with manipulation!" Later, we see someone checking her blood pressure.
Sissako grew up in Mali (this is his fourth feature) and has said in interviews that he sees "Africa as a zone of injustice." That's not the only description he comes up with in "Bamako." Aggrieved Africans complain of symbolic and insignificant elections and that dehumanization breeds incivility. Someone else asserts that corruption is globalization's most unstoppable industry.
But for all its outrage, "Bamako" is not a work of righteousness. As demonstrated in his previous film, a plangent snapshot of subsistence called "Waiting for Happiness," Sissako is a poet, and the filmmaking in this new picture is stuff of a deserving laureate. Sissako is thinking about the small but mounting consequences of big ideas. He gives us a confused journalist and a photographer with a depressingly misguided eye: Not even the media know what to do.
To put this across, Sissako uses lyricism, fusing the metaphorical with the real, the visual with the discursive, and the absurd with the sad. This trial is quite literally happening in the backyard of a couple whose marriage is crumbling, in part, because the husband can't get his act together. The ballad the wife sings doubles as cry for her man and for her nation.
Like the best didactic filmmakers -- the Senegalese directors Ousmane Sembène and the late Djibril Diop Mambéty spring to mind -- Sissako deploys his message with heart and a pointed sense of humor. During recess, for instance, we see one of the defense lawyers haggling with a street vendor over a pair of sunglasses (he wonders where the
But levity in this film goes only so far. It's a post-colonial cry of the soul, one that this court is supposed to address. Of course, the ironies begin to pile up, the most glaring of which is the artificial and evanescent nature of the trial itself. The last few shots in "Bamako" are punches to the gut. This moral strike against the global empire is well and good, but ultimately it's life itself on trial here, and, despite the verdict, it has to go on.
The festival runs through Feb. 25 and features six film programs, of which "Bamako" happens to be the best. But the other works in the lineup are extremely worthy, with Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's revenge drama "Daratt," from Chad, being one of the strongest. For bittersweet comedy's sake, there's Dumisani Phakathi's documentary "Don't [Expletive] with Me, I Have 51 Brothers and Sisters," in which the South African director discovers that his recently deceased father had 11 wives, whose children he's determined to meet. For more information, call 617-369-3306 or visit mfa.org/film.