Director Robert Guédiguian’s most recent film Dancing the Twist in Bamako (co-written with Gilles Taurand) is a blend of style and seriousness that captures the “zeitgeist” of the newly independent 1960s socialist Republic of Mali. The film centers on Samba Touré, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and the protégé of the Minister of Youth, as well as an ardent socialist himself. Samba falls in love with Lara who has fled from her village to Bamako having been forced to marry the abusive, alcoholic grandson of her village’s Chief. Lara and Samba “dance the twist” each evening at the Happy Boys Club, but their happiness is soon revealed as eminently fragile. What is most remarkable about Dancing the Twist, however, is its straddling of this individual love story—“the micro” and the “macro” of large-scale sociopolitical change expanding the clichéd lines around both. The film is at once an ode to joy and the promises of independence and expounds on the hindrances to unifying a socialist nation-state. If watched as a complex meditation on power and liberatory ideologies, this film is likely to please.
Guédiguian’s principal feat is to offer a mainstream audience a nuanced yet accessible rendition of the political and economic climate in late 20th-century Mali. At the film’s inception, Samba and his friends visit villages to “explain” socialism to a population for whom the nation-state and socialist principles do not mean a great deal. Neither nationalist nor socialist ideologies are fused with their lived experience, but hover above it. To use Benedict Anderson’s rather hackneyed phrase, Mali is a community in the process of being “imagined” and only to limited success.
Inculcating national sentiment appears to be as difficult as transitioning to a system of collective farming or instituting a nation-wide family code and education system. Guédiguian attends to the complex demographics in which norms and ways of life vary enormously between genders and between town and country. In the film, women are involved in state building, exist happily within polygamous marriages, and yet, marital rape, forced marriages, caste systems, and dowries are all broached too. These interwoven strands pose the first in a series of “universal” questions set forth by the film: what does “nationalism” mean in a context where realities differ so greatly?
Next, Dancing the Twist is neither propagandistically praiseful of socialism nor does it present it through a wholly negative lens. Rather, hopeful, egalitarian Marxist ideals are espoused by Samba “the dreamer,” whose speech is punctuated with statements such as “Socialism is the sharing of wealth”, or more memorably: “Socialism is the Soviets, plus electrification, plus the twist!” Yet, alongside these optimistic quips characters also complain about queues and voice their broader suspicion that the state is taking from them not giving to them economically and in terms of freedoms. Lara formulates the perceived threat to individuality heralded by a collapse into sameness when she warns Samba “tous pareil ne veut pas dire tous égaux”(all the same does not mean all equal). Visually, this is reinforced through the interplay between the military-style uniforms worn by Samba and his comrades and the colorful clothing donned in the dance clubs.
Indeed, such divergences in opinion between citizens seem to emerge coterminously with the Republic of Mali’s founding. Alternating scenes between government meetings and secret congregations of wealthy traders imply even more vigorously that it is not possible for a population to remain a “united front” after independence. The wealthy capitalist class within a nominally socialist state commit economic fraud and boycott the new national currency, hoping to return to free trade under the CFA (the French colonial currency). They mobilize their workers and the peasants who chant “Long Live de Gaulle” and “Free Trade” in the streets, a surreal episode that hints at the mutability of the causes aligned with freedom. As statecraft begins to spin out of control of its supposed creators, the Frankenstinian nature of the socialist political machine becomes a central plot element when unofficial “vigilance brigades” begin to patrol the streets and government officials shut down dance clubs. Both capitalism and socialism exist simultaneously as beacons of and threats to liberty.
As “Vive de Gaulle” implies, Guédiguian does not present Mali’s political situation in a vacuum but makes frequent links to global geopolitical forces. Pictures of Mao and Patrice Lumumba adorn characters’ bedroom walls and the city streets. References are also made to the neocolonial machinations of Jacques Foccart (the Secretary General of African Affairs to De Gaulle) and violent Anglo-French political maneuvers from the assassination of Lumumba, to the arming of Guinean exiles against Sékou Touré, and the attempted assassination of Kwame Nkrumah. Global forces coalesce with national forces, further compounded by the flash-forward to Islamist groups’ takeover of Northern Mali in 2012.
Indeed, there is no singular, omnipotent force of evil in the film: tradition, religion, colonialism, socialism, and capitalism all intermingle to create its fractious atmosphere. As one character observes, “God seems to be on the capitalists’ side,” a fatalism that is echoed by Samba’s father’s smug comment to the boy who cleans his car: “There aren’t supposed to be bosses under socialism, but there will always be bosses.” Similarly, the minister of youth laments towards the end of the film, “We weren’t prepared for socialism, but without socialism, independence is impossible.”
Finally, these tragic political dimensions are interwoven with tragic personal-romantic dimensions. Samba is faced with an impossible choice: fleeing to protect Lara and abandoning the socialist cause, or abandoning Lara and pursuing the socialist cause; a “trap” between duty and love that is identical to the dilemmas at the heart of Racine’s Titus and Berenice or Corneille’s Le Cid.
It would have been easier to make a film of doom and gloom, but by blending individual and societal strata in a tight matrix, Guédiguian expressly and successfully captures moments of revolutionary ecstasy within a broader (and sadder) narrative arc. Cinematographically, this is a beautiful film, transitioning from moving shots of the rural landscape to black and white stills that pay homage to the Malian photographer Malick Sidibé. There is a diverse soundtrack from Ray Charles to Boubakar Traoré, and European and African modes of dress are blended wherein form-fitting “Western” dresses are made from bazin (the favorite fabric of Malian fashion).