2006, Mali/US/France, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako
Although parts of Bamako recall, vividly, Abderrahmane Sissako's previous films La Vie sur terre and Heremakono in their focus on the details of daily life in Mali, the film as a whole seems almost without precedent: in a courtyard in the Malian capital, Bamako, Sissako creates an international tribunal that examines the impact of the World Bank and the IMF (in particular) on the economies of Africa, while all around the court daily life continues, and the residents of the compound pass in front of the judge. Those residents are the kind of people at the core of Sissako's past work, and his camera observes ordinary Malians with a simple, unpatronising gaze that allows us to appreciate each resident as an individual with a unique set of concerns. It's also critical to grounding a film that sometimes, of necessity, deals in larger abstractions such as the issue of debt on a continental scale, insistently returning the film to a recognisably human scale.
The film takes a clear, and highly critical, position on the role of the international monetary institutions, and the waves of testimony from ordinary people affected by 'structural adjustment' are a potent indictment of international policies - however well-intentioned they may have been, though some would contest even that assumption. Bamako doesn't provide any simple solutions, however: it's intended as a spark for debate rather than an end in itself. In the middle of the film there's a surreal sequence that involves a fictional spaghetti western, designed partly to indicate the complicity of at least some Africans in the fate of the continent, though it's an oblique reference that's not necessarily clear without being aware of the director's stated intent; similarly, the fact that the issue of corruption is addressed primarily by a defense advocate whose behaviour makes him occasionally buffoonish reduces the power of that critique.
The officers of the court are played by actual lawyers, while the witnesses are essentially portraying themselves or people of whose plight they are acutely aware (the second of the witnesses, for example, is Aminata Traoré, a former minister and political activist), and Sissako films them without interruption for the most part, allowing them to speak at length and as if the court was a real entity, with cross-examination and legal back-and-forth; while occasionally the individual sequences seem a little lengthy, the cumulative effect is powerful, while the closing arguments are mesmerizing (among other things, the film provides a fascinating insight into the French style of legal argument). While the lawyers, on both sides, have their fine arguments Sissako is also acutely concerned with those that have no voice: at the beginning of the film, an elderly man (Zegué Bamba) is shunted aside and asked to wait his turn, then returns later to deliver a heart-stopping sung lament that requires no translation. Perhaps even more poignant is the 'former teacher' - no doubt unemployed rather than retired - who comes to the witness stand and simply turns away, worn down by too many years of struggle that he's incapable of putting into words.