Eearly 30 years ago, Edward Said defined 'Orientalism' as the way for the West of knowing and representing the East. 'To have knowledge of [the Orient],' according to him, 'is to dominate it, to have authority over it.' And of course, to 'know' the Orient in a way that they can't know themselves means the West has the onus of governing and determining the fate of the East.
If the twin themes of knowledge and power have dictated the colonial discourses of previous centuries, the same is true for the contemporary developmental debates. When asked about the possible impact of his recent film Bamako, a heartfelt criticism of the structural adjustment programs dominating many Third World countries since the 1980s, Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako replies: "At least they'll know that we know."
In a world inundated by images of African poverty and ignorance, very few see the intellectual self-consciousness of Africa that brims over from this film. Bamako is an exquisite experiment with the inequalities tolerated by the proponents of neoliberal policies of globalisation. In the courtyard he grew up in, Sissako sets up a brilliantly absurd trial against the IMF and the World Bank for the impoverishment and exploitation of Africa.
For the film, Sissako rallied an ensemble of real-life judges and lawyers. Former friends and an ex-minister of culture are some of his witnesses, who - through research and experience - improvise their testimonies in front of the camera uninterrupted. Debt, immigration, education, health: nothing is left undiscussed, as these witnesses impressively articulate the problems of the global order.
Yet Bamako is not solely a political film. The polemics in the film are extraordinary by themselves, but what makes Bamako a sublime experience is the juxtaposition of the arcane procedures and rhetoric over a meticulously constructed texture of everyday life. Sissako relies as much on the characters who surround the courtyard, who are sometimes disengaged but often quietly involved in the judicial drama. The quotidian treatment the trial receives from its peripheral characters may, on the one hand, highlight the irregularity of the acumen demonstrated by the well-versed witnesses, but on the other hand, it also diffuses the sophistication of the arguments into the general scene.
In creating a picture of a more critical, conscious Africa, Sissako is not simply trying to find ways to judge the West. Like his characters, he is deeply aware of the absurdity of his film's scenario. Instead, his goals are to untangle Africa from its conventional representations, to reclaim control over the images and discourses of the continent, to give something of a voice to the silent majority, and perhaps to give meaning to the silence of that majority.
Sissako even complements these goals with a unique, genre-defying filmmaking. The warmth and humour rife in Bamako is reminiscent of Senegalese director Ousmane Semb?ne, while the narrative is deliberately deviant from traditional styles. One may underestimate the significance of Africa being narrated by Africans themselves, the threat it potentially poses to the cultural and political structures of the world. Dangerously, inconsequential discussions in a neglected courtyard of Mali could teach us a whole lot about the world.
This rare and must-see film will be presented by Candid Society at Alliance Francaise de Kathmandu on 23 November, 7PM. Admission free.
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako.
Cast: A?ssa Ma?ga, Ti?coura Traor?, H?l?ne Diarra, Habib Demb?l?, Roland Rappaport 2006