Languages, Globalization, and African Film Language: Bamako by Sissako

13 Apr

I begin this blog post with a set of coincidences from the past few weeks. In the African Cinema class that I am auditing, we have raised the question of whether one can define an “African film language” (counter to the Hollywood and European-auteur film languages, and possibly related to or possibly distinct from “Third Cinema“) while watching a movie that directly confronts the problem of globalization, structural adjustment, and international debt: Bamako (2006) by the internationally acclaimed director Abderrahmane Sissako from Mali. At the same time, in the post-colonial literature class that I am teaching, we just finished studying the well-known debate between two of the most famous African authors Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya). In his classic essay Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi argues that African authors ought to enrich their own indigenous languages such as Kikuyu, Igbo, or Wolof by writing novels and poetry in those languages if they are to truly overcome the psychologically debilitating effects of the legacy of colonization and neo-colonialism. Achebe counters in his essay “The Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature” by arguing for the viability of using the language of the colonizer (English, French, Portuguese, etc.) as a political and artistic tool for liberation. For class that day, I invited one of our senior English majors, Katie Hamilton, to talk to my class about her honor’s thesis about the question of language in three African novels about child soldiers in Africa: Sozaboy, Beasts of No Nation, and Allah Is Not Obliged. Katie analyzed how the authors employ deconstructed “rotten English” as a signifying tool against colonialism in a way that questions the possibility of language and literary form to fully represent or redeem the child soldier’s traumatic memory. Meanwhile, unrelated entirely to any of this scholarly inquiry, at a meeting open to the public, some of my colleagues raised the issue of language requirements, language instruction, and something sometimes ambiguously and problematically entitled  “intercultural competency.” I teach in Staten Island, where according to the Modern Language Association’s “language map” only 70% of Staten Island’s population speaks English as their primary language. As for the rest, 10% of the Staten Island population speaks Spanish, 3% speak Russian, 3% Italian, a little over 1% speak Arabic, and about half a percent speak  “African languages.” Other languages include Chinese, Korean, Urdu, and Tagalog, among many others. This is where we are, certainly. And so, the coincidence of these overlapping conversations about language, art, teaching, and globalization presents a bit of a conundrum for me as I find myself struggling to manage the various points of view and complex ideas as I sit down now to do my “homework assignment” for my African Cinema class and meditate philosophically about the question of language in the global context presented by the films I have been watching. To make things more difficult, I find myself writing for multiple audiences: my professor of African Cinema, my colleagues where I teach, my colleagues around the world, the students in my classes on post-colonial literature, introduction to film, and advanced literary theory, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, my close friends who work energetically on behalf of the Oromo people in Ethiopia.

Dhaba, me, Steve G., and Tesfaye at Mount Entoto in Ethiopia

Dhaba, Steve T., Steve G., and Tesfaye at Mount Entoto

And here now, before I meditate on the question of language and how the film Bamako has something interesting to say about that question, I should admit a certain personal orientation, which is my connection with the Oromo community both here in the United States and in Ethiopia, as it is the language and ethnicity that I happen to have married into. At the end of my class last week, while my students were debating whether Achebe or Ngugi was right, one of my students turned to me and asked, “but what do you think, professor? Whose side are you on?” I told him that as an academic and educator, it is not my role to take a side but rather to expose students to voices and perspectives typically excluded from the mainstream conversation and to amplify those voices — and in this case, ironically, a range of voices and perspectives not yet included in the conversation about language instruction and international education at my own institution. But then I felt this principled statement about my professional role might be a cop-out, so after the students pressed me further, I said, “O.K., I will admit why this is important to me personally and why it’s difficult for me to take a clear stand.” My wife’s ethnic community claims a history of oppression at the hands of the dominant Tigray and Amhara ethnic groups. Although the history and politics of cultural diversity and mixing are quite complex and multifaceted (see here), it is a fact that for much of the twentieth century the Ethiopian government banned the Oromo language from print and radio media as part of their official cultural policy called “Amharization” — the purpose of which was to politically unify Ethiopia under the language of its dominant ethnicity. For my American readers, it is important that we recognize the role of the United States government in this state policy which, from the perspective of many (not all) of my Oromo friends, would be be considered a policy of cultural genocide that would repress not only the Oromo language but also over 80 other ethnic languages in the region as well. Although the Oromo language spoken by over 30 million people has proven itself quite resistant to this policy, there are 28 languages in Ethiopia alone — and roughly 3,000 languages worldwide — in danger of extinction according to the United Nations. The American role in this policy in the form of funding and weapons has been documented by one of the most respected historians of Ethiopia, Harold Marcus (a historian respected by all the political and ethnic groups, it is important to mention) in his book The Politics of Empire: Ethiopia, Great Britain, and the United States, 1941-1974. This policy was reversed after the revolution in 1991, and I am proud to be a friend and a partner to Dhaba Wayessa, one of the first individuals to publish a novel and produce a play on the national stage in the Oromo language in his home country. I have listened to him and Oromos older than him recount stories of going to school and being punished by their teachers for speaking Oromo on the playground rather than the national Amharic language. Their story directly parallels the stories of colonial language instruction recounted by Ngugi in Decolonizing the Mind as well as by the famous Martinican philosopher, psychoanalyst, and revolutionary Frantz Fanon in his classic study of the psychology of race, culture, and language in France and the French colonies, Black Skin, White Masks.

From what I’ve written so far, it might seem that I am committed to the perspective of Ngugi and my Oromo nationalist friends, and so my students thought for a minute until I continued on to explain that I was actually quite conflicted on the matter. After all, Achebe was writing his response to Ngugi after years of brutal civil war in Nigeria, in part due to ethnic tension, and in part due to a more complex set of socio-economic forces. Fanon was more interested in moving forward than in going back to a mythic linguistically pure past. An important argument for a national language and political unity of the former colonies is a strategic nationalism to protect themselves against the debilitating divisiveness of ethnic conflict as well as against the political power of Europe and the United States. To put it another way, a far greater danger to indigenous languages than the language of the colonizer might be the language of international finance and free market economics. It is obvious which language the banks speak, and it is not a language taught in any department of foreign languages. It is the language of current account balances, foreign direct investment, profit margins, interest rates, and debt.

The language of global finance — something the scholar of literature Amitava Kumar has called into question in an ironically titled book “World Bank Literature” —  is the subject of the film Bamako, and last month I had the lucky opportunity to hear one of its producers, the famous actor Danny Glover, have a conversation about the movie with his friend, the even more famous scholar and activist Angela Davis at NYU. It is also, incidentally, the subject of another film that I watched this month: Hyenas (1992) by the avant-garde director Djibril Diop Mambety (Senegal) about an impoverished town that is willing to cannibalize itself (like a pack of hyenas) in order to find relief from its debts.

You can see the trailer for Bamako below, which features one of the most awesome vocal performances of all time by Christy Azuma, here:

Beyond the subject of globalization, I think this movie has a lot to offer anyone thinking seriously about language instruction and administrative concerns about intercultural competency, diversity, etc. The premise and formal structure of the movie is brilliant and unlike anything I have ever seen before. The director Sissako imagines a trial in which the plaintiff is “African society” and the defendants are the “international financial institutions.” The trial is held inside an African compound, the home of Chaka and Mele. Mele is the beautiful nightclub singer, and her husband Chaka is unemployed and cares for their sick daughter Ina at night. While he cares for his daughter, Chaka studies Hebrew in hopes that if Israel ever opens an embassy in Mali, he will be a prime candidate to work as a guard there — a notion that prompts his friend to break into a fit of laughter. Also in the compound are women who tie-dye cloth. Throughout the film, as the trial takes places, the speeches of lawyers and witnesses are juxtaposed with the ordinary life of the town and its people: a sick man cared for by his daughter, women going about their business, unemployed men chatting outside the compound walls, little children playing with the official documents, and the tragic drama unfolding between Chaka and Mele. The language of the trial is French, though some of the witnesses do not speak French so there is a court translator who can speak Bambara. In contrast to the concerns of African novelists about the language of their art, film directors have more easily mixed colonial and various indigenous languages. However, juxtaposed to the language of the trial is the language of ordinary life, which is life itself, constantly asserting itself against the lofty speeches.

It is possible to read this film as nothing more than wish-fulfillment, an indictment of the global financial institutions that protestors around the world have been calling for since the mid-1990s, the sort of trial we might wish would happen but that has never happened and will never happen. However, the artistic structure of the film, with its surrealistic mixing of private and public spaces, is more complex than that. For most of the film, we only hear part of speeches as the film cuts in and out of the trial and cuts to and from scenes of daily life inside the compound or to scenes of the men outside who sometimes turn off the speakers, muttering to themselves, “this trial is becoming annoying; when is it going to end.” There is the scene when Chaka is being interviewed and suggests that the journalist not waste his time, as nobody will listen anyway. In his book African Film (2010), Manthia Diawara has compared the structural devices of Bamako to Jean-Luc Goadard’s classic Tout va bien in which a cross-section of the building allows the audience to see the “superstructure” and “base” of society at the same time, but Sissako’s film does more than that by delighting in the uncontrollable events and cutting between random shots, including the incessant squeaky shoes of a child that one can hear beneath the speeches of the lawyers. Here the illegible and unintelligible are juxtaposed with the grim statistics of globalization. As Kenneth Harrow has argued in Trash: African Cinema from Below (2013), what asserts itself in Bamako against language is the reality of what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life.”

A significant moment is when the griot (African town poet and storyteller) named Zegue Bamba begins singing his lament, addressing the judges and lawyers with his traditional fly whisk. This is the only moment in the film when the words are not translated, and yet it doesn’t matter, for we feel his lament. Indeed, so does everyone else in the town, for the entire movie seems to be arrested by his voice. The movie itself seems to stop, and suddenly, because of the griot’s untranslated voice, the movie becomes another movie entirely. While he sings, the camera shows us the faces of the judge, the audience, the women working, and the men sitting outside who all stop and listen intently, clearly moved. Later in the film, one of the lawyers (who is played by real life politician Aissata Tall Sall) does translate some of the griot’s words for us, when she suggests that his voice is an embodiment of the people: “Why don’t I sow anymore? When I sow, why don’t I reap? When I reap, why don’t I eat?”

This notion of embodiment and the complex performances of a language that is not fully translatable is important for a recent 2009 essay by Gayatri Spivak called “Rethinking Comparativism.”  Spivak is famous not only as the translator of one of the most important and controversial works of 20th-century French philosophy (Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology) and one of the most important works of contemporary Bengali literature (Mahasweta Devi’s Imaginary Maps), but she also as one of the most often-cited theorists for post-colonial theory. In that essay, she begins with the problem of translation in recognition that certain aspects of language and culture are untranslatable — what she calls an “irreducibility of the idiom.” Considering this, she argues for the importance of comparative literature as a discipline uniquely suited for thinking about the problem of language and the global situation dramatized in a film such as BamakoShe continues to argue that academic institutions ought to play a role in “undoing the historical injustice toward languages associated with peoples who were not successfully competitive within capitalism.” In other words, she implies that American academic institutions have in the past been complicit with the cultural genocide of the world’s diverse languages by promoting the languages of empire (e.g., English, Spanish, French, and even Arabic and Chinese) at the expense of other languages in part because of the institutionalized nation-centered notion of language that does not always even account for the linguistic variation within the imperial languages (e.g., the Basque literary movement within France and the linguistic impact of Arabic on Spanish.) She does not make this argument simply out of despair over the thousands of languages and cultures that might be forever lost to history, but for the important role these languages and their idioms play in our thinking differently about the world in which we live and in the imperfect and troubled history of political and cultural relations. Hence, the goal of language instruction is not simply to learn how to translate or “get by” in another language, but to discover the untranslatable difference and to reconsider the history of one’s relation to others, a ghostly history that may be repressed by simplistic notions of “national languages” that are wrongly imagined to exist outside of historical time and are somehow magically independent of each other.

The flip side of Bamako is the movie Daratt (2006) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Chad) and filmed in a mixture of Arabic and French about a young boy Atim whose grandfather has asked him to seek vengeance upon a man named Nassara who killed his father. The historical context for the film is after a civil war and the government’s decision to grant amnesty to all war criminals who committed atrocious acts of political violence. Atim searches for and finds Nassara who has repented his past life and is now a baker who gives bread to the poor. Without revealing his identity, Atim begins to work for Nassara and learns the trade of the baker. There is almost no dialogue in the film as Nassara can only speak through an electronic device since someone tried to cut his throat. Rather the film speaks to the audience through long moments of silence and what in film studies is called “film grammar” (the camera shots and editing). Nassara and Atim come to know each other not through words but through their shared labor. Eventually, Nassara begins to love Atim as a son and proposes to adopt him. However, Atim has no answer to Nassara’s questions “do you love me?… where is your father?” These questions are too painful, and the question Atim’s silence provoke the audience to wonder about throughout the movie is whether Atim will take vengeance or forgive the man who killed his father in a moment of “truth and reconciliation.” I will not spoil the ending in my blog, as I hope everyone will go see it. Here is the trailer:

The point about language that I think emerges in this film is the flip side of Bamako – the terrible silence of history and the unspeakable memory that the characters can not find voice for. But not all silences are from trauma and pain. Other silences are from joy. My favorite moment in the film is when Atim begins to bake bread by himself, and in this scene the cinematography beautifully reveals an entirely different sort of language, the language of manual labor and economic production and the psychologically transformative pride Atim takes in his work.

Film offers us a unique medium for thinking about language since it is essentially a medium (as Kenneth Harrow argues in his analysis of Bamako) of something the philospher Jacques Ranciere calls the “sentence-image” in which language and image combine in ways that are not fully commensurate — e.g., the image may contradict what the characters are saying, or there may be a gap in meaning between the words and the image. This gap in meaning opens up a space for commentary, play, aesthetic transformation, and the insistence of  un-representable reality and untranslatable idioms.

In Bamako, one formal device that comments on the globalization of film language and the history of cultural relation between the West and Africa is the brilliant film-within-a-film, in which Sissako interpolates a terribly cartoonish sphaghetti western set in Africa entitled “Death in Timbuktu” starring Danny Glover and an international host of other film personalities. The conceit for this film-within-a-film is that one of the families that lives in the compound where the trial is being held is about to watch a movie on Mali’s national television station. The movie cuts back and forth between the film itself and the family watching it, but the film-within-a-film mirrors the movie as a whole as the film language of the spaghetti western is juxtaposed with ordinary life in an African town. In “Death in Timbuktu” the American-style-gangsters accidentally shoot a woman, and her baby is crying. It is a terrible, awful scene that parodies the western genre, but then the cowboy-gangster starts joking and laughing with his compadres, and suddenly we cut to the audience watching the film, and a small boy is laughing along with the psychopathic cowboy-gangsters. The movie thus makes a satirical point about the impression American and European film has on African viewers, but also the film-within-a-film serves as an allegory for the larger structure of the film, as the “western” institutions of global finance cause havoc in African towns. You can watch the film-within-a-film here:

This is an instance of film language self-consciously commenting upon itself as well as upon the medium of film’s relationship to culture. Here we have an African parody that alludes to an earlier African parody “Le retour de l’aventurier” (1966) of an Italian appropriation of an iconically American film genre. We might call this an “African film language” — not because the movie asserts a nostalgic sense of original and authentic African-ness or one of Africa’s ethnic languages, but precisely because it reveals the poetics of relation of African film to the global film industry that parallels the troubled relation of African languages to European languages. This poetics of relation is not only troubled; it is also creative and productive of new cultural formations that can’t be reduced to the simplistic paradigms of national languages instrumentalized by a college curriculum. It is to the credit of language departments today that, in spite of the impetus place upon them, they resist such instrumentalization through programs of civic engagement and through pedagogical models that foreground the complex cultural history within which language subsists. However, considering Spivak’s call to thinking about the thousands of other languages in the context of globalization and her suggestion about the important role of comparative literature to redress the political conditions of language and literature, I wonder how we can think through the profoundly deep problematics of language, literature, film, and culture — “problematics” (in the philosophical sense of that word) that for me are not merely academic and artistic questions, but political and personal questions.

2 Responses to “Languages, Globalization, and African Film Language: Bamako by Sissako”

  1. Marlon-Ralph Nyakabau July 1, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

    Great topic to discuss

    As a Zimbabwean, particularly Shona speaking, I would say I’m more inclined to Chinua Achebe’s philosophy that the foreign language allows liberty through expression

    My Shona is very limited in terms of range of expressions. For example, the word “Denga” in Shona can mean, roof, sky, heaven or high. “Mweya” can mean air, soul, spirit, or fart! One may argue that the meaning could be discerned from the context but the English allows clearer precise expression for one’s thoughts especially in these modern times in which unprecedented experiences require new expressions. The ability to express an opinion is the key to freedom or liberty

    However I’m proud of my language and I want my kids to speak it as well. It builds self esteem being unique in something.

    In my experience with Zimbabwean films and television, use of the English language sometimes hinders the quality of acting and the film. The actors won’t be pronouncing words clearly and confidently as what the scriptwriter would’ve dreamt of. However to tap into the deeper themes of life, English goes deeper. The films I prefer are the ones that employ language as it is used in day to day lives of peoples; mixed.

    • steventhomas July 14, 2014 at 8:05 am #

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Marlon-Ralph, and I think I agree with your preference for the mixed language like the way ordinary people talk. Nevertheless, I wonder if your Shona language were studied in school and published as literature, would it increase the range of expression that you talk about? I don’t know. But most English words actually come from other languages — not only Latin and German but also Japanese, Arabic, and Native American languages. Imperial languages always appropriate the languages of the places they colonize and encounter. What if Shona appropriated other languages the same way? it seems to me that film-makers as well as poets and hip-hop artists, are moving towards a mixed, hybrid form that taps into the cultural diversity of their homeland and reaches an international audience at the same time. For example, Binyavanga Wainiana’s new literary journal Kwani? promoted a sort of poetry called Sheng, which mixes forms. Here’s a link about that: http://www.anotherafrica.net/publication/kwani-a-journals-claim-to-the-new-kenya. I think such poets and film-makers are responding to your own preference for films that employ the language as it is used day-to-day.

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