A strong candidate for African film of the year, "The Court" (aka "Bamako") brilliantly rises to the challenge of presenting a serious discussion of globalization, African debt and the World Bank in a lively, entertaining feature film. Rather miraculously, pic succeeds in painlessly educating its viewers about global politics and economics while it describes contemporary Africa with freshness and clarity. Talented Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako ("Life on Earth," "Waiting for Happiness") hits a high note with this warm winner, which only asks audiences to insert their brains before buying a ticket. With very careful handling, it should be distributable to niches.
A caveat is that this is not a straight narrative film, because the main characters -- the beautiful young singer Mele (Aissa Maiga) and her husband Chaka (Tiecoura Traore), who are in the process of breaking up -- vanish for long stretches of time while a strange court is in session.
The courtroom is set up in the unpaved courtyard of Mele and Chaka's home in a poor section of Bamako, Mali. The trial is against international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, whose policies have brought Africa to its knees with national debt. Unable to develop industry or social services with the little money that is left over after interest has been paid, Africans are trapped in a disastrous situation.
Hard statistics are fearlessly brought out, like the 50 million African children who are slated to die in the next five years. Pic's p.o.v. is unflinchingly anti-capitalist, and at times the tone can be just this side of dogmatic.
Abstract as all this sounds, Sissako brings dry concepts to life through the sometimes humorous, sometimes dramatic words of "witnesses" drawn from every walk of life as well as lawyers who eloquently present the case for the plaintiffs and, less convincingly, the defendants.
Meanwhile, life goes on around the court. A couple gets married, women dye fabric, and so on.
For laughs, there is even a mock Western incongruously shot in Timbuktu, in which tongue-in-cheek cowboys (played by the likes of executive producer Danny Glover and Palestinian director Elia Suleiman) shoot it out on African soil.
The warm, gorgeous colors of Mali are captured in Jacques Besse's delightful, eye-catching cinematography. Africa's great new music sounds are heard via Aissa Maiga's opening and closing song numbers (sadly, left untranslated in the subtitles) and a soul-piercing chant executed by veteran Zegue Bamba.
Camera (color), Jacques Besse; editor, Nadia Ben Rachid; production designer, Mahamadou Kouyate; costume designer, Maji-da Abdi; sound (Dolby Digital), Dana Farzanehpour. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (non-competing), May 22, 2006. Running time: 115 MIN.
With: Danny Glover, Elia Suleiman, Jean-Henri Roger, Djeneba Kone, Hamadoun Kassogue, Hameye Mahalmadane, Aissata Tall Sall, William Bourdon, Roland Rappaport, Mamadou Konate, Mamadou Savadogo, Magma Gabriel Konate, Zegue Bamba, Aminata Traore, Madou Keita, Georges Keita, Assa Badiallo Souko, Samba Diakite.
(French, Bambara dialogue)