Wednesday, November 22, 2023

ADIFF ’23: Dancing the Twist in Bamako

In 1962, the socialist government of newly independent Mali sounded like John Lithgow in Footloose, at least when condemning dancing and rock music. In contrast, they were keenly enthusiastic about the collectivization of agriculture. It did not work any better there than it did in 1930s Ukraine. Eventually, ardent young Party activist Samba Toure will learn the cold hard truth about socialism, but he is a true believer, albeit one who still enjoys clubbing, at the start of Robert Guediguian’s Dancing the Twist in Bamako, which screens virtually as part of this year’s African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Toure completely swallowed the promises made by the socialist president Modibo Keita. That is why he is such a persuasive speaker among the student cadres, organized by Namori, the Minister of Youth. Toure is sure that socialism will work out just fine, even though most of his comrades think it is against his best interests, being the son of Lassana, a successful textile trader. For Toure, socialism’s real conflict is with the traditional Islamist ways that still hold sway in the remote villages. On his latest proselytizing expedition, he meets Lara Samassoko, a youthful newlywed hoping to escape her arranged marriage.

Of course, Toure falls for Samassoko, after he helps her escape to the big city of Bamako. Being a good socialist, he expects the Party to rally against the backwards traditions that oppress young women like her. Instead, Namori prefers to defer to the village chief. He wants his protégé to forget about social policy and return to his work promoting their collective agricultural plots, which apparently have been failing at an alarming rate.

There will be many opportunities for viewers to say “I told you so,” to Toure, but that does not make his tragic spiral of betrayal and regret any less sad. Ironically,
Dancing the Twist is visually bright and colorful and its young ensemble is energetic and charismatic, but it inevitably ends in tears. For extra, added fatalism, the concluding epilogue flashes forward to the 2012 Jihadist occupation of Mali, which shows things could still get even worse. It is a heartbreaking, but fitting way to end.

Throughout it all, we constantly sympathize with Toure, because Stephane Bak portrays him with such earnest naiveté. As a result, his reality-based disillusionment is brutal, but dramatically potent to watch. Bak also has terrific chemistry with Alice Da Luz, as Samassoko. The way she tries to regain a sense of optimism while with Toure is quite touching. Plus, Issaka Sawadogo is absolutely devastating as the ill-fated Lassana.

There is a lot of licensed American rock and pop in
Dancing the Twist, very definitely including Chubby Checker. Nevertheless, the original score by Olivier Olary and Johannes Malfatti tastefully evokes Highlife, but also hits the perfect bittersweet notes. It sounds terrific and it looks great, thanks to Pierre Milon’s vibrant cinematography. Frankly, it ranks with Abderrahmane Sissako’s masterful Timbuktu as two definitive cinematic statements on Mali’s troubled history. Very highly recommended, Dancing the Twist in Bamako screens virtually 11/24-12/10, as part of this year’s ADIFF.