In August 2008, Manthia Diawara returned to Bamako, Mali, where he was born in 1953, to film rehearsals for an opera performed by an all-African cast on a stage specially erected on the banks of the Niger River. Based on a libretto by the Chadian poet and playwright Koulsy Lamko, Bintou Were, a Sahel Opera had been the dream of Prince Claus of the Netherlands (1926–2002), whose charitable fund first enabled it. Diawara’s cameraman captured the dramatically lit and ritualized scenes of village elders and proletarians—among them the Bintou Were herself, pregnant with child and protecting herself from suitors who, like the man who raped her, wish to take advantage by claiming fatherhood—as well as the smuggler who seduces these desperate people northward. We also see the Malian capital as it is today in behind-the-scenes detail: a trip to the market for textiles, a conversation with the librettist, a bridge across the Niger River.
In the course of the film, one crosses into the world of opera from the tradition of sung wisdoms and sentiments, which has characterized West African culture for centuries. If opera is often understood as an über-European art form—the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) invoked by composer Richard Wagner, one of the form’s most controversial proponents—Diawara chooses to meditate on its movement or migration as opposed to its expansion or totality. What happens when opera moves south, from Europe to Africa, just as so many people from that continent are moving north, in search of better lives?
On first seeing the film that Diawara will premiere at documenta 14, I was struck by the time taken in the opera to mourn and to reflect. Or rather, in the particular view of it offered by this most worldly of film essayists, who asks us to tremble together, upholding the words of the Martinican poet, philosopher, and his dear friend, Édouard Glissant. Wandering the shores of Lesbos, Diawara poses questions in the face of the sea, its myths, and media footage of mass migration, which only obscure human heroism with numbers and other abstractions. He invites eminent critics, including Fatou Diome, Nicole Lapierre, Richard Sennett, and Alexander Kluge, to help articulate finer feelings—to make sense. A Sahel Opera becomes a world opera, tragic in the tradition of the genre, but far from a dead end. Might we consider it moving in search of a better death?