In a mock trial in an open courtyard in Bamako, Mali, the people of Africa accuse the G8, the World Bank and the IMF of betraying them with their ‘restructuring’ programmes of the past 20 years. The witnesses are economists, academics and the victims of privatization. In one memorable scene, an unemployed teacher, whose face is testimony to his suffering, can’t even bring himself to speak.
The trial is the centrepiece, but the film is much more than that. Around it we see everyday life in the courtyard, and people coming, going, watching, listening. Women are busy in the workshop, a man is dying in a nearby room, children are playing, a marriage is falling apart. There are moments of great beauty, like the song of the nightclub singer who lives just off the courtyard. There’s lightness and humour too, as when, during a grand speech, a small child wanders around on squeaky shoes.
Sissako’s contemplative style is some way from the conventions of Western cinema, but crucial to what he’s about. The trial is central, and seeing these powerful organizations having to defend their shameful record is hugely satisfying. But Sissako shows us how life goes on around it to illustrate the debate – and to expose its limitations. This debate is often deeply felt and passionately expressed, but is abstract and ideological. It means little to the people in the public seats and listening outside on a PA.
The advocates are concerned to win their arguments about policies, not to connect to the people who suffer from their consequences. An old man intones his speech in his native Bambara, but it remains untranslated. An unemployed man tells a journalist there’s no point recording what he has to say because no-one will listen.
Sissako has made a great film. Yes, it’s about globalization. But to an even greater extent, it’s about how the debate rarely involves those it most affects.