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Struggles of Africa play out in courtyard

In `Bamako,' a mock trial for the World Bank illustrates the continent's decline under the world institution's policies.

June 01, 2007|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

In deciding to bring the World Bank to "trial" in the spacious, picturesque courtyard of his childhood home in Mali, gifted writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako has made one of the most powerful, urgent African films ever. "Bamako" is an attack on globalization that is endlessly cogent, confrontational -- and, best of all, as captivating as it is illuminating.

Having persuaded actual judges, lawyers, activists plus ordinary people to participate in the mock hearing as it unfolds over several days, Sissako had the inspired idea of allowing everyday life to go on around the edges. Women continue to dye fabric and nurse babies; a bedridden young man suffers without access to medical care; a wedding procession passes through, counterpointed by another couple's disintegrating marriage, which in elliptical fashion provides the film's only actual plot, involving a beautiful and talented lounge singer, Mele (Aissa Maiga) and her despairing, unemployed husband, Chaka (Tiecoura Traore).

The courtyard, in short, represents the heart and soul of Africa, embattled by decades of World Bank policies that have crippled much of the continent with privatization and swamped so many African nations with staggering debt. As one eloquent witness after another attests, these countries are poorer than they were 20 years ago, with life expectancy declining, infant mortality rising and literacy rates dropping. Sissako has declared that "if we take into account the total capital flow and wealth transfer, African countries have more than repaid their debts to rich countries."

Through his witnesses, Sissako implies that the wealthy African elite also bears responsibility for their nations' ills through complicity with the World Bank. "Bamako" drives home the role of Europe and North America in the fate of Africa with unrelenting force.

Daringly, Sissako allows everyone involved in the trial to have his or her say fully but sustains this demanding amount of testimony both by its own implacable, commanding impact and by Sissakos' wry, incessant attention to detail that is at once revealing, often sad, sometimes amusing.

This inclusive, vital and utterly unique film even boasts, for comic relief, a movie-within-a movie: an African western spoof called "Death in Timbuktu," in which one of the cowboys is played by the film's co-producer, Danny Glover, who will conduct a question-and-answer session after today's 7 p.m. screening. He also will introduce the 9:50 p.m. show.

"Bamako." Unrated. Too intense and complex for children. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.

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