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The Africa country-by-country project continues, this week with Bamako, set in the capital of Mali. It’s a seriously weird, seriously interesting movie.

There are three main parts to it. The first is a mock trial , featuring the people of Mali versus the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The director, Abderrahmane Sissako, filmed actual people – professors, business owners, ordinary citizens – arguing their case against French lawyers.

The trial takes place in a neighborhood courtyard. The second part of the movie is the daily life of the people who live around the courtyard. One couple is on the verge of breaking up, another is getting married. A woman supervises a fabric-dying operation; a man studies Hebrew in the hopes of getting a job if Israel opens an embassy. (Establishing diplomatic relations with Israel is a way that some Islamic African nations solicit American aid. Mauritania had an Israeli mission for a while.) The geopolitics of aid are in the background, and the people have things to do. They are too busy living life while everyone else argues about the country’s problems.

The third part of the movie is a mock Western movie (a Jollof rice Western?) starring Danny Glover called “Death in Timbuktu”. Some of the people in the courtyard are watching it on TV, and the effect of seeing a stereotypical American movie with an American star filmed in Mali is, well, weird.

The trial in the courtyard is fascinating. Aid is a complicated issue. On the one hand, we have money, they need stuff, so let’s make it happen and solve everything! On the other hand, free money can fuel corruption and make people lazy; money with strings attached may hold economies down. In the book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins argued that international aid and development programs were explicitly designed to hold developing nations back, create dependency on the U.S., and enrich U.S. contracting companies.

I’m not sure what I think. The current aid programs have not brought enough countries out of poverty, and the loss of human capital is heartbreaking. But why aren’t they working, and are the failures intentional or are they side effects?

Abderrahmane Sissako blames the World Bank and the IMF. This movie was not at all what I expected – I thought I was in for a drama about a singer – but it made me think.