Thursday, February 15, 2007

What I Sow, I Don't Reap

Last night, slipping through a gross gray slush that used to be fallen snow, I went to the Film Forum to check out Abderrahmane Sissako's searing new film, Bamako.

Bamako, like Ousmane Sembene's Moolade, is an African courtyard drama. But with one or two major twists. Sissako, who grew up in Mali in an environment very similar to the one depicted in the film, has said that there were twenty-three people at all times in his father's courtyard growing up. Women hanging clothes out to dry or drawing water from a well; children scampering barefoot with squeaking toys. But where Sembene approaches the subject of female genital mutilation with a fittingly reserved realism, Sissako embraces a gentle form of absurdism to pound home a very real point:

Smack dab in the center of this everyday Malian courtyard is a trial. There are video cameras, microphones, and a podium. A small audience of "witnesses," local people from the neighborhood, sit in rows of chairs. Robed attorneys sit in the front row, all facing a judge (who is dressed eerily like Santa Claus, by the way). Taking part in the trial, on one side, are the defendants: global financial institutions, represented by the IMF/World Bank. And on the other side, as the plaintiffs, are the People of Africa.

Early in the film, an old peasant with a horse hair fly-swatter and only a few remaining teeth approaches the podium and demands to be heard by the judge. The judge commands him to wait his turn. He has to wait--and we have to wait--until nearly the end of the movie to hear what he has to say. In what will undoubtedly be called one of the finest moments in recent African cinema, the peasant breaks out in a folk song near the end of the film that goes un-translated in the subtitles. It's not until a few minutes later, when one of the lawyers representing the African people makes her closing statements, that we hear the meaning of the old man's song: "What I sow, I don't reap. What I reap, I don't eat."

In between the peasant's two appearances, a heated debate rages in the courtyard. African writers, professors, former school teachers take the podium, arguing with devestating power against the influence of the World Bank, embodied by a mousy Frenchman named Monseiur Rappaport. It goes without saying that the people depicted here, in the audience and at the podium, are not actors. Of the few actors who actually do appear in the film (the line between staged and real is tantalizingly blurred), one is a beautiful young nightclub singer named Mele, and another is her husband, played with incredible subtlety by Djenebea Kone. The parallel between their crumbling marriage and the courtyard trial need not be overstated.

Anyway, I think I've said enough about the film, which I thought was an uneven masterpiece. If you haven't seen it yet, go now.

One thing I do want to mention is what followed last night's screening: perhaps the most peculiar and surprising Q & A exchange I've ever had the pleasant anxiety of being part of.

I'm not a big fan of the Q & A as a format, or anything resembling that. (Author readings, for example, give me ulcers.) I always feel nervous. My heart palpitates when the lights go up and the executive producer--in this case, Danny Glover--grabs the microphone and looks expectantly out into the audience. There is that pregnant pause while people try to think of something smart to say. Everyone's seen the film; we're all on the same page. Now who's more observant and interesting? That's the way I always see it. And this night, I found myself very put upon to say something smart to impress Danny Glover.

"In Lethal Weapon 2, you..." No, no. That wouldn't do. Wrong crowd. How about: "Being an African myself, I..." Nah, that's too confessional. Nobody cares. Just because you're parents were born in Ethiopia, that gives you authority on speaking of all things African? Okay. "In Lethal Weapon 3, you..." Oh, fuck it.

Danny Glover, who was an executive producer on the film, and the film's American producer, a white lady with thinning blonde hair and glasses, were on hand to field questions, none of which thankfully came from me.

The room was packed. Everyone seemed to be waiting for the first person to offer up their opinions for the rest of us to pick apart secretly, quietly. A very fat man in the front row raised his hand, holding a tall soda cup in the other. And as he started talking, I invented a new rule with myself for movie Q & A's. Can we all agree that it should be a general rule that the first Q to raise his/her hand in a post-screening Q&A session should be shot dead on the spot, or at the very least ignored, by the A?

The fat dude says to Danny Glover that the scene I mentioned above, the one with the peasant singing without subtitles, annoyed him. So did the color of the subtitles. "It's just my pet peeve," said the man. Danny Glover stood there, gazing off with pursed lips, and shrugged his shoulders.

Quickly, a man--I saw only the back of his head--raised his hand. He spoke with a French accent, gesturing gently as he spoke. He said to the fat man: "I think it was an artistic decision not to have the subtitles. You just hear the words and the way he says it. Plus, the lady in her speech translated it only five minutes later. Which is, I think, more powerful, more artistic than subtitles."

Gentle applause spread through the room. Danny Glover nodded furiously. The fat man, who had turned around in his seat to face this Frenchie who dared to disagree with him, shrugged his shoulders dismissively and shook his head. After the applause died down, the producer woman standing beside Danny Glover smiled and said, "Thank you, Michel Gondry."

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