1 April 1999
*Life on Earth* forms part of an impressive international series assembled in France ‘to depict, in fiction, the moment of transition to the year 2000’. Abderrahmane Sissako, who had studied film in the Soviet Union and in France, decided that for this project he must return to his hometown of Sokolo in rural Mali.
The film that he has created thus imagines life in Sokolo during the last hours of the century and on into the following New-Year’s Day. In Sokolo there are no celebrations, no grand schemes, no Y2K (or ‘millennium bug’) panics, no grandiose summations of national destiny. For an outside viewer it’s hard to see how life is affected at all by the turn of the calendar. Some people try to negotiate long-distance phone calls, others visit the tailor’s shop or dress up a little to get their portraits taken. A large delegation of perhaps 20 men walk through the village, on their way to a meeting or gathering. A speedy motorbike zips noisily into town stirring a cloud of red dust. But that’s about it.
Sokolo represents a social and cultural milieu completely different from that of Europe. In many ways it follows the ancient, worldwide traditions of agricultural living, where anxieties centre on livestock, weather and natural pests. The blazing sun and the constant battle with huge flocks of grain-eating birds form the biggest preoccupations.
Yet rural Mali is not oblivious to the larger world. Letters from abroad and the local radio provide steady reminders of life elsewhere, especially in Paris. As a young woman in traditional dress strides along an unpaved Sokolo street kicking up the red dust, we hear an enthusiastic radio announcer tell of the big snowfall in Paris and the growing excitement among the ‘millennium’ crowds gathering in Tokyo.
This push and pull between a big world and a small one permeates the film and meshes with Sissako’s focus on local communications. Sokolo is held together by the cultural glue of local radio, the post office and its telephone service, a common knowledge of important books, even the village photographer with his display of mini portraits. Communicating can be difficult, however. By first-world standards the phone system is decidedly crude. The phone is a public instrument only, operated by post office workers in the manner of the old telegraph service. ‘Reaching people is a question of luck,’ warns the operator.
*Life on Earth* presents rural Africa as somewhat idyllic, where the culture is open and relaxed, the community stable and people are friendly. But the film also carries a political edge and a few pointed reminders that poverty and international exploitation lurk nearby. The neo-colonial relationship is well-known, certainly by the radio disk-jockey who urges villagers to hear the words of an author ‘that we know well’. That author is Aimé Césaire, the poet and essayist of Martinique, whose books have helped three generations of Africans understand the legacies of colonialism. ‘Life is not a spectacle,’ wrote Césaire. ‘A screaming man is not a dancing bear.’
Through his patient, loving camera and his tough intellect, based on Césaire, Sissako has created a beautiful, fully controlled work of art. A work that celebrates life yet also reminds us that even with the turn of the century, in rural Mali ‘no improvements can be expected soon’.