Throughout Bamako, an unusually politicized slice of life from Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako (Waiting For Happiness), a heated trial over Africa's economic future takes place in an open-air courtyard in Mali. As witness after witness testifies to the crippling effect African debt has had on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, everyday life goes on around the proceedings. There's a wedding procession, another marriage in crisis, people watching television in the apartments above, and a couple of lovely sequences of singing and dancing. Juxtaposing these two elements—the trial and the lives it affects, however indirectly—could hardly be more unnatural and incongruous, which is probably Sissako's point. Given that the fate of Third World countries is usually determined in a more formal location, cloistered from the people most adversely affected, the decision to hold this civil trial in a common area brings the message home with authority. Perhaps too much authority.
The World Bank and IMF might have a good argument for how they go about their business, but Sissako doesn't give them much of a voice. Instead, citizen witnesses are given an open microphone to air their grievances over loans that were meant to revive the country's economy, but have left it so indebted that the majority of its resources are devoted to satisfying their creditors rather than addressing social ills. The pervasive irony of African nations like Mali, one witness notes, is that they're flush with natural riches, yet have no real access to them. With the trial at the fore, Sissako quietly pokes into life surrounding the courtyard, most notably the failing marriage between a gorgeous singer (Aïssa Maïga) and her out-of-work husband (Tiecoura Traore).
The photography and sound design have their grace notes, but Sissako awkwardly grafts the trial and everyday life together in an attempt to show the big picture and the small picture at the same time. He even throws in a bizarre movie-within-a-movie starring Danny Glover and Palestinian director Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention) that looks like lost footage from a cut-rate '70s spaghetti Western. Bamako is missing the drama that might glue all these disparate elements together: The court proceedings are passionate but one-sided, and there's little more friction in the subplots, which are set aside for gaping swaths of time. The central conceit is audacious, but the film feels oddly slack and inert, livened only by testimony better suited to another forum.