BAARA (Soulaymane Cissé, 1978)

The following is one of the entries from my list of the 100 greatest films (through 2006) from Africa, Latin America & the Caribbean, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

From Mali, Baara—the title translates as Labor, or Work—is by Soulaymane Cissé. Its three main characters are on a capitalistic collision course. Balla Diarra is an impoverished street porter who lands a job at the local textile factory owned by Makan Sissoko, a man so intent on riding Africa’s westernized wave of the future that he has only one wife at a time. (Sissoko is currently in his fourth marriage.) Between them stands Balla Traoré, who newly manages Sissoko’s factory and institutes a shorter work week and higher wages. He seeks to protect its workers from both their corrupt union and Sissoko’s plans for a massive layoff. Unlike Sissoko and Diarra, Traoré doesn’t quite know his own place yet, nor is his level of confidence sufficient to forge a clear path of action through the morass of his good intentions. Moreover, he is conflicted, as his marriage demonstrates; tied to old ways, he refuses his wife her independence, keeping her at home. By contrast, Sissoko’s wife runs a boutique (another part of her husband’s—forgive—empire); but her freer life encourages her adultery. We have here a symbolical jumble of post-colonial attitudes and uncertainty.
     Tribal results ensue, including Sissoko’s sense of betrayal upon learning that Traoré has met with workers (he thus has Traoré killed), and his burst of lethal violence upon catching his wife and her lover together. The police assault on striking workers is, indirectly, another outcrop of his lethal violence. Sissoko’s center does not hold.
     In detail the film shows, moreover, the workers at work—work, here, that’s excrutiating to perform as well as monotonous.
     Baara is a tad clumsy, arty and melodramatic—but powerful. It shows colonialist imperatives, assimilated by post-colonial capitalism, finding ways of reasserting themselves through greed and lust for power.

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