The ups and downs of modern Africanity: a video essay
November 16, 2015 § Leave a comment
Is the persisting relevance of a forty-year-old satirical film a testament to the satirist’s socio-political foresight, a vindication of his jokey pessimism, or an indictment of a nation at large? It turns out that viewing Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembene’s Xala (1975) in a contemporary context provides ample evidence in favour of all three.
At the risk of being overly speculative, it is not unreasonable to posit that Sembene busied himself crafting politically-charged art in the hopes of encouraging the kind of cultural and national self-awareness necessary for social integrity and progressiveness, particularly in the wake of newly won freedom from colonial rule (1960 onwards in the case of Sembene’s native Senegal). Whether or not he intended for his work to be representative of extra-Senegalese Africa is beyond my knowledge, though its influence on sub-Saharan cinema in general is quite simply undeniable.
Suppose then that Sembene, in 2006, happened to sit down and watch Abderrahmane Sissako’s impassioned Bamako, an allegorical portrait of a Malian town whose residents are caught between continued colonial exploitation and post-colonial mismanagement. It’s hard to imagine him taking even perverse pleasure in the realisation that his decades-old films, Xala in particular, have proven to be somewhat prophetic, almost to the point of seeming like a curse. As I mentioned in my piece on Bamako, Sissako simultaneously celebrates and bemoans the paradoxical mess that is contemporary Africa, suggesting that somewhere in this muck lies the source and solution of the continent’s woes, fiscal and otherwise. Strangely enough, ‘contemporary’ in this context spans a good thirty years, all the way back to Xala, if not further.
June 24, 2015 § 1 Comment
One can only imagine how Bamako plays to viewers who have never lived anywhere in Africa, or rather, those who do not feel that it is their place to level candid criticisms at the continent and its people for fear of being accused of western paternalism or much worse. But for someone born and raised in the ‘Motherland’ – generally speaking, of course – Mauritanian-born filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako’s breakthrough 2006 picture, which is to say the one which positioned him squarely on the world (festival) stage and in the sights of discerning cinephiles hungry for new voices, is one whose greatness almost trips over itself before becoming evident. Weirdly reminiscent of a Robert Altman picture with its wandering approach to largish ensembles in which subsets of characters don’t necessarily interact while being nonetheless engaged in a kind of meta-textual conversation with one another by virtue of their being in the same narrative universe, Bamako takes place in the titular Malian town which also happens to be Sissako’s home turf and is basically centred around an imaginary court case: plaintiff, debt-ridden Africa; defendant, The World Bank, the IMF, ‘The West’ and all other purported contributors to Africa’s fiscal woes. Staged in – of all places – the actual courtyard of Sissako’s father’s house, the proceedings establish an interesting, Kiorastami-like interface between fiction and non-fiction as characters wax and spar polemically about the political and economic state of the African continent at the time of filming, which is no less relevant now than it was nine odd years ago. As these impassioned – sometimes detrimentally so – rants fly out from the screen, life goes on both within the courtyard (yes, there’s a bit of a pun here that needs to be acknowledged) and within the homes that form its walls, though always in the shadow of something greater and elusively oppressive. It must be said that the form that this film adopts is a most uncanny distillatory representation of Africa’s contradictory nature, which is to say that it is a scatterplot mix of pre and post-colonial, western and non-western, impassioned and apathetic, hopeful and demoralised, humorous and not at all amusing, sexy and just plain daggy, all swirled into one heady, dysfunctional yet lively soup. But the compositional richness of Bamako is not simply a visual pleasure. It registers – in these eyes – as a subliminal explanation of why it is that Africa may find it so hard to hold its own in a global society which may admittedly not be quite as charitable as it makes out to be. The image of women and men of the law in full robed garb, seated in a dusty outdoor makeshift court through which people blithely waltz without much thought for the possible disrespectfulness of their actions is one such example of Sissako’s concurrent skewering and celebration of the absurdity that can be and often is startlingly true of modern African society. But despite the very obvious playfulness of the movie – playful to the point of featuring a seemingly pointless film-within-a-film called Death in Timbuktu, a “Sahara Western” so to speak (as opposed to Spaghetti Western) featuring Danny Glover of all people – and the bubbling undertones of intellectual indignation and rage, Bamako is at heart a gently sombre work. However peripheral they may appear in the face of the rhetorical bluster of the court/deposition scenes, the quiet moments of ordinary townsfolk mourning lost love, lost lives and an unknown/unknowable tomorrow, and the fantastic musical sequences featuring emotionally hypnotic local songstress Melé (Aïssa Maïga) as she takes to the stage of a Bamako bar…it is these which seem to speak with more clarity, elegance and fire than the many oratories designed to equally heat up the soul. It’s as if Sissako, in attempting to fashion an erudite exploration of post-millennial (West) Africa and its myriad economic issues, settles on the milder, more humanist (though no less radical) notion that the viability of the African continent depends less on its dealings with a potentially dishonest wider world and more on a commitment to dealing honestly with itself.