In a small courtyard of a house shared by several families (in Bamako, capital of Mali) a trial court has been set up where African spokesmen are taking proceedings against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This fictional setup allows the filmmaker to present a myriad of voices, addressing the human impact of the policies of these international organizations. Meanwhile, life goes on in the courtyard. Individuals who live there carry on with their efforts to make a living, most notably a talented woman who has to leave the home to sing in a nightclub in another city so that she can support her family and a husband who has lost his job and his dignity.
The film, in effect, aims to put global capitalism itself on trial and we, the audience, get to stand in as the jury. On the one hand, these organizations allow for the development of the nations they invest in: the creation of hospitals, roads, utilities, and the like. On the other hand, these development come with a steep price tag: conditions for such development include privatization of utilities, the selling off of local resources to the highest bidder, and the establishment of steep loans that have put several African countries in deep debt from which there is little possibility of emergence -- which means that their revenues must be put towards loans rather than education and even upkeep of the developments for which they paid so much. A number of perspectives and examples are given of both costs and benefits of various development projects that have taken place in Africa over the last several decades and the consensus among those attending (with some strongly opposing views presented) seems to be that the costs outweigh the benefits, and that globalization is effectively colonization under a new guise, and that it continues the process of divesting Africans of their culture and heritage and resources.
What is especially nice about the film is that the ideas are not hammered into the audiences heads; questions are raised, points are made, counterarguments are considered. Perhaps the most heavy-handed moment in the film comes at the midpoint, after the court has adjourned on the first day of proceedings. Families from the compound sit around an old television and watch a movie, a Western (starring Danny Glover, who put up some of the financing for this film), but not exactly like standard Western fare. A group of "bad guys" come into town to do bad things, a few "good guys" try to stop them, but there is a huge amount of collateral damage. The message, as it seems, is that when men with guns and armies do battle, for whatever reason -- and whatever their ideological basis such battles tend to be about privileged persons fighting over power and resources -- when men with guns and armies do battle it is the people who suffer and pay the cost of their ideological and political strivings. Whatever takes place in the bigger conversations about globalization, whatever wars are fought over African resources, ordinary people, such as those in the compound in Bamako who take no part in the trial, just want to live, to be able to feed their families, to face life with dignity, to have a voice. The most profound moment of the film comes when a man, who had been waiting patiently to address the court, finally stands before them and can't say a word. With this very intriguing and powerful film, Sissako gives voice to the concerns of those who have no voice on an international policy-making platform. This is a very important film, well worth watching.