“Bamako,” “The Films of Morris Engel”
By Michael Atkinson Malian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako may have made the one African film everybody...
Malian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako may have made the one African film everybody needs to see — at least for its disarming fugue of frank political awareness and state-of-the-quotidian African life. In most other ways, though, “Bamako” (2006) is a challenge to orthodoxy, because it’s not driven by its narrative, and hardly even provides an establishing context for itself. Before we know it, we’re in a sun-dappled Mali courtyard (Sissako’s family home, as it turns out), in which a kind of tribunal is going on, complete with black-robed jurists, waiting witnesses, anxious journalists and stacks of documentation. This is, we slowly realize, a fantasy trial in which the African people have taken civil proceedings against the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and American-led global capitalism in general, for the crime of exploiting and loan-sharking the continent and its peoples. The testimony is not from actors, but from real African citizens, writers, activists, tribal leaders, etc.; the lawyers, European and African, on both sides are also genuine advocates.
It sounds like a Peter Watkins film, except “Bamako”‘s primary thrust is mitigated, colored and accented in a distinctly African fashion: in, behind and around the trial courses a never-ending flow of relaxed, workaday life full of loiterers, babies, laundry, troubled families, goats, sunglasses salesmen, fabric dyers, well-women and so on. Every one of Sissako’s shots is a deep-focus study in the irresistible press of life; beyond every passionate witness who gives testimony is Africa itself, working and lazing and surviving. A beautiful nightclub chanteuse, whose marriage is dissolving, stops the court in mid-morning to have someone, anyone, tie up the back of her dress. The locals listen to the proceedings on loudspeakers until they no longer wish to and watch TV instead. (Sissako doesn’t let that opportunity slip by, inventing for broadcast a cheesy spaghetti western parable on cowboy diplomacy starring Danny Glover and Elia Suleiman.) At one point, a wedding ceremony plows through the courtyard.
But the witnesses are never deterred, and the core of “Bamako” is intense, eloquent testimony against the state powers that systematically, under the guise of aiding developing nations, rape them of resources and drain them through intolerable debt. For Americans who generally accept the spin about the IMF and the G8 being philanthropic or, at best, error-prone organs of national assistance, getting the picture from the African perspective could have an awakening effect. The IMF’s lawyer, embodied by French decolonization advocate Roland Rappaport, cannot muster much of a proposed defense, but who could, given the vocabulary and priorities Sissako has established? (The name “Paul Wolfowitz” is spat out like a swallowed bug.) There’s no denying the integrity of Sissako’s assembled voices, especially once an elderly tribesman takes the stand and belts out a wailing, and unsubtitled, Bambara elegy of cultural woe, making everyone in the vicinity stop dead and go grave. Humanistic agitprop, “Bamako” may be African, but it is aimed outward at the world with global unrest in its heart.
The integrity located at the nougat center of Morris Engel’s three modest features — “Little Fugitive” (1953), “Lovers and Lollipops” (1956) and “Weddings and Babies” (1958) — is just as undeniable, just as it’s virtually impossible not to feel charmed and even a little blessed by the movies’ affectionate attention to realistic details (despite their cloying titles). They are, in fact, such an unassuming clutch of cinema that it’d be easy to overlook the revolution they represented — without “Little Fugitive,” there might not have been a French New Wave or John Cassavetes, and therefore, perhaps, no new wave movement at large. Before Engel, “indies” were exploitation and genre rip-offs, destined for the grindhouses. Before Engel, American film characters had heavily plotted actions to carry out — they didn’t live in real rooms, speak in convincing cadences, or lallygag around watching children or laying in parks or dallying over luncheon counters. Before Engel, shooting an entire dramatic film as if it were a spontaneous documentary was unheard of. From the late ’40s noirs onward, American films were tentatively, nervously, edging toward a street-savvy realism, but it took Engel to push the zeitgeist over for real, with no studio behind him and with a handheld camera, into the sawdust of Coney Island and onto the sidewalks of Little Italy.
Engel, working with his photographer-editor wife Ruth Orkin at every stage of production, had a crafty and expressive eye, but his films feel as natural as daylight through an old apartment window. “Little Fugitive” is a tiny story — a Brooklyn seven-year-old thinks he killed his bullyish brother, and escapes alone to Coney Island — slogged by post-dubbing and amateurish performances, and yet it’s a miracle; it’s as if no one had ever photographed a real child doing authentic childish things before. Freckly, beady-eyed Richie Andrusco is just a paradigmatic kid (no extraordinary resources of charisma or camera love here), but essential, unfettered boyness was rare in movies, and it’s what makes him compulsively watchable. Similarly, “Lovers and Lollipops” dawdles over little Cathy Dunn as a fatherless girl whose lonesome mom (Lori March) finds a new, and not terribly kid-savvy, boyfriend (Gerald O’Loughlin); the people are just as interesting to Engel as the landmarks of Manhattan, including Central Park, Macy’s and the Statue of Liberty (source of a typical Engelian moment: as the adults talk high in the statue, kids run along its shadow’s perimeter on the grass).
“Weddings and Babies,” the only Engel film to be made with synch-sound and without Orkin, is a stunningly intimate view of a working couple at odds about marriage and offspring. (Viveca Lindfors, coming to Engel’s penniless improv New Yawk after 10 lackluster years in Hollywood, gives one of the best performances of the ’50s.) “Little Fugitive” won a top prize at the Venice Film Festival, played in 5,000 U.S. theaters, and has since been inducted into the National Film Registry. (It is, in addition to everything, an anthropological portrait of Coney Island in the early ’50s.) But all three movies are sincere and true and powerfully expressive love letters to kids, to lower-middle-class Americans, and to New York and its outer boroughs, in a day of thriving street life. Influential or not, Engel was a hardcore independent who struggled to get his films made. He made a fourth feature, “I Need a Ride to California” (1968), which still has never been seen; otherwise, he and Orkin made their livings as photographers and occasional commercial directors, outcasts from a culture-scape they pioneered.
[Photos: AÃ¯ssa MaÃ¯ga in "Bamako," New Yorker, 2007; "Little Fugitive," Joseph Burstyn, 1953]
“Bamako” (New Yorker Video) and “The Films of Morris Engel” (Kino Video) are now available on DVD.Tags: Abderrahmane Sissako, Bamako, Little Fugitive, Lovers and Lollipops, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, Weddings and Babies
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