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Preaching to a Select Choir

There are some who contend that Western corporate interests (represented by institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) serve to impoverish and debilitate millions of African citizens, but many more are either unaware of or indifferent to these issues. The former may gravitate toward Mauritian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako, provided they can find it playing in some small art-house cinema. For the latter, there’s always Shrek the Third.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Bamako is an eloquently written polemic, informed by the rage of poor African villagers who tire of watching their national resources poured into the pockets of financial institutions backed by the Bush administration. (And yes, he’s mentioned by name.) During a mock trial set in the capital of Mali, a procession of the poverty-stricken offers powerful and often engaging arguments against globalization, while a panel of lawyers stands ready to dismiss their words as uninformed rhetoric. The villagers remain unconvinced. In some cases, they come armed with emotion, not fact, but they know that something is terribly wrong.

Watching the two sides argue, it’s left to the viewer to form an opinion, though there is no doubt where Sissako’s sympathies lie. Presented as some strange bastardization of cinema vérité, Bamako is hardly even-handed, and perhaps it shouldn’t be. As the pro-globalization forces summarize their arguments, Sissako’s camera pans over those who have no access to medicine, those who cannot afford to feed their children. These are devastating images, and no doubt reflect a reality that is wholly foreign to most Westerners.

The problem is that Bamako is not a documentary. It is fiction without narrative structure, without a story moving toward resolution. Perhaps that’s fitting -- after all, Sissako is recounting an ongoing story that has been unfolding for hundreds of years. But even as informative as his speeches may be, they are just speeches, one after another. There are thinly developed characters sprinkled here and there, and a slightly bizarre interlude in the form of a TV Western, starring co-producer Danny Glover. The rest is impassioned preaching.

There is plenty to be learned from Bamako, but how many people not already familiar with the situation will subject themselves to a two-hour polemic? If Sissako was trying to reach predominantly African audiences, the guess here is that he’s preaching to the choir. Elsewhere, his words, like those of the righteously enraged villagers, will likely fall on deaf ears, if they are heard at all.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars