Born in Bamako, Mali, in 1940, Souleymane Cissé is one of Africa’s pre-eminent directors, with a varied body of creative work. As a young man, he worked as a photographer and a projectionist in Mali. From 1963 to 1969 he studied filmmaking in Moscow at the State Institute of Cinema, where a number of other future African directors (including the great Ousmane Sembène) received a firm grounding in the technical art of cinema under the accomplished Soviet director Mark Donskoi (!).
Cissé returned to Mali in 1969, where he went to work for the Ministry of Information as a documentary filmmaker. He made his first short fiction film, Five Days in a Life, in 1972, then his first feature, Den Muso/The Young Girl, in 1975. This was followed by Baara/The Porter in 1978, which won the Best Film and Best Actor awards at the Carthage Film Festival, along with major awards at Naumur and Locarno. It was followed by Finyé/Wind in 1982 (which won the Grand Prize at the 1983 Pan-African Film Festival), Yeelen/Brightness in 1987 (which won many international awards, including the Jury Award at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival), and Waati/Time in 1995.
Baara opens with a dream. Striking close-ups of a man shot frontally, in profile and from the rear give way to a burning fire and two hazy figures approaching from behind the fire, walking together. And then reality sets in. Balla Diarra is waking up in the bare sleeping quarters that he shares with a gang of porters, most of whom have come from to the city from their villages and most likely are working without papers. A decent, guileless young man (we see him early on refuse to accept payment from a pregnant woman whose husband has thrown out her and her children in favor of a new, younger wife), Balla works hard, but has little to show for it. His prospects pick up when he carries a load for a young engineer, who turns out to have the same first name as he. They realize to their amusement that the engineer’s last name is Traoré, which by tradition would make Balla Diarra his slave, since the Diarras had traditionally been in the service of the Traorés. The two men take to each other, despite the difference in their social status. After Balla Diarra is arrested in a raid for not having papers, the engineer bails him out and offers him a job at the textile factory (producing African clothing fabrics) that he has recently begun to manage.
The factory is part of a business conglomerate owned by The Director, Makan Sissoko, a new-style African capitalist, with his fingers in a number of financial pies (too many for his own solvency). He is played by the excellent Malian actor Balla Moussa Keita, who has appeared in a number of films shown in the Festival over the years, including Cissé’s Finyé (as the Governor) and Yeelen (as the Peul king). His fancy clothing boutique, which caters to the high-class Bamako bourgeoisie, is run by his wife, Djenaba. She is the Director’s fourth wife. (He is no polygamist, however; as a “modern” man, he has chosen the Western strategy of serial monogamy, having divorced his previous three wives.) Djenaba is beautiful, tough, with a mind of her own, not afraid to have a young lover on the side. It is a marriage whose days are clearly numbered.
Balla Traoré’s marriage too is less than ideal. He is a complicated young man, somewhat lost in this time of values in transition. Conscious of his clothing and his looks, very much a member of his social class, he is also intense and hard-working. He is hoping to make the factory the kind of positive workplace that he envisioned in his younger days as a university student. He tries to protect the workers from the Director’s plans to lay off 200 in a cost-cutting scheme. He wants the workers to meet with him as a body to give them a say in their work, believing that they should assert their rights, circumventing the corrupt in-house union that supposedly represents them. He tries hard to win their trust.
His enlightened views at work do not extend to his home. His beautiful young wife is frustrated, living in boredom. He does not confide in her, is frequently sarcastic and condescending. She too is complicated, and a little spoiled. Despite her advanced education in France, her husband will not let her work. She resents this, desiring her own source of income and consequent independence. She would like to have children—as would he—but so far that has not happened.