Many have tried to read the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Film Festival its last rites. Certainly, there has been plenty of evidence to suggest that the cineaste’s annual pilgrimage might not live another year. These last two years alone have seen the unraveling of its steward, the debt-ridden Minnesota Film Arts; what looks to be the impending sale of Oak Street Cinema; and the heart-bypass surgery of Al Milgrom, literally the one man behind the show.
The eleven-day film marathon, though, kicked off its twenty-fifth festival last night at the Riverview Theater with a screening of Bamako, a small, powerful film from Africa that’s evidence enough that Milgrom best hang in there for another twenty-five years. Bamako’s executive producer, actor Danny Glover, was on hand to introduce the film (and field questions at a post-screening Q&A). Glover, in turn, was introduced by ex-Viking Hall of Famer Carl Eller, who clearly isn’t much of a film buff: he forgot the name of the movie. I hope he stuck around long enough to see what the fuss was about.
Written and directed by Abderrahmane Sissako and set in a courtyard in Mali (in fact, the courtyard where Sissako grew up) Bamako plays out an intriguing premise: what would happen if a poor village in Africa put the World Bank on trial for the continent’s economic, political, and financial crises.
Sissako cast real lawyers, friends, and associates as witnesses in this mock trial and then asked them to improvise their arguments in a makeshift outdoor courtroom presided over by magistrates in judicial robes. The impassioned arguments are sometimes hard to follow and as maddeningly abstract as you might expect when it’s globalization, privatization, and basically the whole Western world on trial. But it works because the film isn’t a straightforward debate on the World Bank’s culpability for Africa’s problems. In fact, remarkably little in this politically charged film is nearly so heavy handed or linear.
Maybe that’s because Sissako is as equally interested in capturing the quiet rhythms of daily life in the Malian capital as he is the polemics. Interspersed amidst the courtroom sequences, there’s a brief, poignant story of a bar singer who plans to leave her out-of-work husband and a spoof Hollywood western (which includes a cameo of Glover) that’s set in Timbuktu.
Even the courtroom proceedings have moments of humor. Toward the end of the film, a man who has been listening to the arguments observes that the trial has become annoying, undoubtedly Sissako’s nod to those in the audience who might be thinking the same thing. He has nothing to worry about. This surprising, subtle, original film is the kind of movie you hope to discover at a film festival. It’s not destined to play at the neighborhood gigantaplex or be particularly easy to track down on DVD, which is precisely why we can all be grateful that our homegrown fest lived to see its silver anniversary. Thanks, Al.
The Minneapolis–St. Paul International Film Festival runs through April 29 with screenings at the Riverview Theater, Bell Auditorium, Oak Street Cinema, and St. Anthony Main Theater. Here's the festival's full schedule and some "tips and tidbits" from Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.