2007 SFIFF50—Bamako Press Notes/Interview With Abderrahmane Sissako
I deeply believe that life and hope go beyond the notion of justice.
Recently, while waiting for a word-of-mouth screening of Vacancy to begin, I browsed through a handful of press notes for the upcoming SFIFF50. A young lady next to me took interest and asked, "What are those?"
"They're press notes," I answered.
"You're a movie critic?" she followed.
"I write about movies," I corrected, edging away from the assumption. I offered her some of the press notes to peruse while waiting for the film to begin. "These are fascinating," she said, "they have so much information about the movie!"
"Sometimes," I qualified.
Later, on my way home, filling the vacancy left after Vacancy (nature abhors a vacuum and all that), I felt fortunate that press notes are (again) sometimes a perk to compensate for no compensation writing about film. I say sometimes because often they're just a complete waste of trees, replicating the closing credits that roll across the screen while you're shuffling out of the theater. But other times they include critical overviews or provide insightful historical context. The press notes for Stuart Cooper's Overlord come to mind; they were a fascinating read.
As were the press notes for Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako; one of the gems of SFIFF50's line-up this year. I watched Bamako again recently and enjoyed it even more than my first viewing. Included with the press notes were a note from Sissako and an interview conducted with French film critic and educator Franck Garbarz. I felt Garbarz's interview, especially, deserved to be read by a larger public than the press and contacted local publicist Larsen Associates to seek permission to replicate the interview here on Twitch and on The Evening Class. Larsen Associates put me in touch with Ron Ramsland at New Yorker Films, Bamako's distributor. Ron tracked down the author of the interview and granted permission to use Garbarz's piece, for which I am deeply grateful. Thank you, Ron.
But then I felt a tinge of conscience because somewhere in the back of my mind was this little voice saying, "You're not supposed to replicate stuff from press notes. That's a journalistic no-no." So I've asked around and, sure enough, some film writers say no, that's not acceptable. The publicist and the distributor were surprised by that reaction because they provide the material precisely to be used. So not being tethered to any kind of academic training when it comes to my film writing, trusting gut instincts, and eschewing peer approval, I offer for your perusal what I found of worth in the Bamako press notes. [After completing this entry, I discovered Garbarz's interview with Sissako can also be found on the film's official website.]
Today's core missions of the Washington-based IMF and World Bank, which were created in the wake of World War II, are to regulate the international monetary system and lend money to developing countries. As many countries had difficulty repaying their debts, rich countries imposed, in the early 80's, structural adjustment policies that set the rules of the game for millions of people. International financial institution officials were granted the power to impose on the most debt-ridden countries' governments a policy supposed to balance their budgets. Most Sub-Saharan African countries are under structural adjustment programmes these days.
These programmes based on neo-liberal principles serve rich countries' vested interests—essentially those of the United States and of Europe. The reforms imposed on Southern countries have always been the same while, paradoxically enough, they are far from being implemented in Northern countries: suppression of State subsidies (in agriculture, textiles, etc.), the dismantlement of public services and job cuts in the public sector (school teachers, doctors, etc). In debt-ridden countries, the privatization of State-owned firms, which managed natural resources, water, electricity, transport and telecommunications has always been carried out in the interest of rich countries' multinationals. The contracts—signed against a backdrop of corruption and political pressure—have always benefited these multinationals.
At the same time, the populations under structural adjustment have grown poorer and poorer, their life expectancy has declined, their child mortality has risen and their literacy rate has dropped. Most official reports indicate that the Very Indebted Poor Countries are poorer today than they were twenty years ago. However, if we take into account the total capital flow and wealth transfer, African countries have more than repaid their debts to rich countries. Many of them have had to relinquish everything they owned and can no longer secure their future development. A long overdue debt relief seems now to be deceiving.
Interview With Abderrahmane Sissako
Franck Garbarz: How did this project come into being?
Abderrahmane Sissako: First, this film is linked to my desire to film in my father's house, who has passed away. This house is located in Bamako, in the poorer neighborhood of Hamdallaye. It's a plain house, made of earth. For years, a tap and a well have been standing side by side in the courtyard. Here, water is expensive, and to save money, my father had a well dug. This courtyard is where I grew up, with my many brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, close and distant relatives. Never had we been less than twenty-five sleeping, eating, learning, living almost in turn. Today, most of us have left the house to live elsewhere—and yet the house is still always full. New cousins, close and distant relatives live there, go to school or quit to work on some odd job or other. For me, this house is associated with the memory of passionate discussions with my father about Africa.
The other reason that urged me to make this film has to do with my views on Africa—Africa, not as the continent that I call my own, but as a place of injustice which directly affects me. When one lives on a continent where filmmaking is difficult and uncommon, one feels entitled to speak in the name of others: faced with the seriousness of the situation in Africa, I felt a kind of urgency to bring up the hypocrisy of the North towards the Southern countries.
Garbarz: Without a doubt, your film adopts the least traditional narrative. How did you develop this method?
Sissako: At first, I wanted to limit the setting of the film to a trial without ever leaving it. Afterwards, I understood that I could perhaps go further if I gave up the idea of a single space, one theatrical setting, and that I could introduce characters outside the trial.
Garbarz: What is striking, is precisely the life that goes on outside the courtroom: women are [dyeing] fabric, a mother nurses her little daughter, a couple breaks up, another gets married…
Sissako: I developed the secondary plots because I wanted the lives of the people living in the courtyard to echo or interfere with the speeches delivered at the bar. The trial debates illustrate a kind of intelligence which monopolizes all of our attention and it was absolutely necessary that the sophisticated statements be put into perspective by comparing them with the lives that go on in the courtyard. The people who gravitate around the courtroom believe in the trial but don't expect anything from the verdict. When talking about the West, in order to encourage me, one of the witnesses said: "At least they'll know what we know."
Garbarz: In Waiting For Happiness you showed the impotence of Africa's public authorities and western countries' anti-immigration policies. Here, you reach a new stage with a film in the form of a parable.
Sissako: I deeply believe that life and hope go beyond the notion of justice. Speaking in a straightforward way is extremely difficult these days and conveying message through a parable seemed the right thing to do. I wanted the debate that is carried out by the main characters in the trial, to be regularly broken up by other realities, which sometimes take the form of parables. It was impossible for me to imagine this trial anywhere but with a real living place.
Garbarz: Is it possible to say that the trial has a cathartic quality to it?
Sissako: The real question is this: no court of law exists to call into question the power of the strongest. It wasn't so much a question of laying the blame on who is guilty than denouncing the fact that the predicament of hundreds of millions of people is the result of policies that have been decided outside their universe. You find this idea in a statement given by Aminata Traoré, one of the witnesses, who refuses to accept that poverty is the main feature of Africa: no, she says, Africa is rather a victim of its wealth! So, in this way, I wanted to offer another image of my continent, one different from war and famine. This is where an artist's creativity comes in, not to change the world, but to make the impossible realistic, like these proceedings against international financial institutions.
Garbarz: How did you think up the "dialogues" of the main characters in the trial?
Sissako: It's worth knowing that I called upon judges and professional lawyers and also real witnesses. I worked a long time with them. I decided what the framework of the proceedings was going to be like and then I let them put it to life. When we were filming, I gave them a lot of freedom when testifying, accusing or defending. Some of them had been chosen among the victims of the famous "structural adjustments" of the World Bank and the IMF: these are the people that we call the "outcasts," the laid off workers, like those former public servants who found themselves out of work because public services had been privatized and sold to Western multinationals. These "witnesses" had the feeling that a real trial was taking place and so when they came to testify in court they voiced their resentment. Here again, I didn't make anything up.
Garbarz: You remind us that women play a central role in Africa and prevent the continent from erupting into violence.
Sissako: Yes, they are the ones who prevent us from being too pessimistic about the future of the continent. When one sees their will to fight, their strength, it's only normal to give them an essential part in the film, in the trial as well as in the life that goes on around the courtyard.
Garbarz: How is the spaghetti western scene related to the film?
Sissako: For me, it was a case of showing that cowboys aren't all white and that the West isn't solely to blame for Africa's woes. We too have a share of blame. This is why the cowboy who shoots the "extraneous" schoolteacher is African.
Also, a large portion of the African elite is a party to the West: they've never had the courage to act in favor of changing things because each person is only looking out selfishly for their own interests. So, I saw this western sequence as a metaphor of the World Bank's or the IMF's mission—since these missions are carried out jointly by the Europeans and the Africans.
Garbarz: How did you go about the filmmaking?
Sissako: For me, we had to film the trial as one would a documentary: a scene couldn't be interrupted, a witness wouldn't have been asked to repeat a sentence and we let the court president and the lawyers listen to the testimonies and intervene as they saw fit.
We used four video cameras and a sound recordist, deliberately letting them be visible on the screen. Because I wanted everyone to get used to this technical device, just as one would in any trial. On the other hand, for the scenes outside the trial, we chose a fictional scenario, with shooting script, reverse-angle shots, master shots . . . and we shot on 16mm. This is how it turned out that together, in the same film, we had professional actors and actual lawyers, judges and witnesses, people from the neighborhood, and members of my family.
Garbarz: You also introduce a character who carries a camera.
Sissako: The character of Falaï, the cameraman, makes videos both for weddings and for the crime squad. But he says he prefers filming the dead, "they're more real." I wanted to show his personal point of view, without sound. These images represent for me the glance of those who don't have the means to speak out.