“Baara”: A Must-See Film of Patriarchal Abuse, at the New York African Film Festival
The Malian director Souleymane Cissé’s drama “Baara” (“Work”), though from 1978, is far ahead of most political movies made today in its critical view of patriarchal abuses of power. (It screens tonight, at 6 P.M., as part of the New York African Film Festival, at Film at Lincoln Center, and will be followed by a Q. & A. with the director.) The action is set in Bamako, Mali; in the first scene, a man throws his pregnant wife and their five young children out of their house, leaving her to fend for herself as he prepares to take a new wife. It’s only the first of many such abuses that the movie documents—and which Cissé depicts as inseparable from the economic abuses of crony capitalism.
Balla Diarra, a porter who carts the woman’s belongings for her, also gets hired for a job by Balla Traoré, an educated young factory manager with progressive ideas. Traoré, a former political activist, attempts to improve conditions for his workers and resists layoffs requested by Sissoko, his corrupt and imperious boss. Yet Traoré, who’s married to an educated woman, maintains tight control of her life and refuses to let her work. When Diarra is arrested for a trivial matter, Traoré arranges for his release, and hires him at the factory, where the employees are about to call a meeting and threaten to strike, with Traoré’s support. Meanwhile, Sissoko’s wife—on whose money the factory depends—is having an affair with a younger man, and Sissoko makes a show of force both at home and in the workplace.
I’ve got a cinematic pet peeve: movies that show characters making purchases or getting paid but that never mention wages or prices. “Baara” is a trenchant corrective. As a freelance porter, Diarra charges forty cents for a delivery. A peddler offers a shirt for seventy cents and a pair of pants for thirty. The fine to get Diarra out of jail is two dollars. A package of roasted meat sells for two-fifty. The workers in Sissoko’s factory get fourteen dollars a month, the factory owes four hundred thousand dollars in taxes, and Sissoko writes a check for a hundred and fifty thousand from his wife’s account, even as he insults her and threatens to beat her. Cissé makes explicit the infrastructure of corruption—the abuse of public funds and the abuse of religion to keep women subjugated and workers terrorized. The movie runs only ninety minutes but captures grand social forces in microcosm, evoking public and private violence, intimate and civic corruption in teeming images that fill frames with richly textured action—and that culminates in a furious act of unified resistance to misogyny and economic exploitation.
Cissé, best known for the drama “Yeelen” (“Brightness”), from 1987, is a crucial modern filmmaker, yet his works are rarely shown; his drama “Min Yè” (“Tell Me Who You Are”), from 2009, which screened at the New York Film Festival, was never subsequently released in the United States. The screening of “Baara” at Lincoln Center is all the more crucial, inasmuch as the film has also never had a U.S. theatrical release and isn’t available on home video.