Souleymane Cisse's initially rousing documentary about social upheaval in modern Mali flounders in overblown rhetoric.
Profound reserves of feeling don’t translate to deep audience impact in “Our House (O Ka),” a microcosmic documentary examination of Malian social injustice that reps a noble disappointment from esteemed veteran Souleymane Cisse. Framing a bitter property dispute over his Bamako family home as a piqued metaphor for the ongoing damage wrought by the Northern Mali conflict, Cisse’s film first registers as an intimate cri de coeur — aided by the charismatic presence of his four elderly sisters as the house’s embattled residents — before floundering in repetitive, overblown political rhetoric. A slot in the Special Screenings sidebar at Cannes will lead to further festival bookings, but its hectoring tone and downbeat subject matter will discourage arthouse distribs from giving “O Ka” the OK.
Cisse’s film isn’t the first to tackle the devastating effects of the recent Islamist insurgency in his country, nor is it the most candid: Its Cannes premiere came a year after that of Abderrahmane Sissako’s lyrical narrative protest pic “Timbuktu,” which went on to secure worldwide distribution and even a foreign-language Oscar nomination. The success of Sissako’s plangent, challenging work might appear to smooth the commercial path for “Our House,” but most comparisons aren’t likely to flatter Cisse’s smaller-scale statement — which loses emotional immediacy thanks to a synecdochic conceit that the helmer (via narrator Daouda N’diaye) blatantly explains at every turn. At one point, N’diaye directly chides any viewers who might think the film is “just” about the Cisse family’s fight for their ancestral property, though its symbolic inflation of this legal battle to the larger political landscape of Mali isn’t entirely elegant.
In the opening reels, the Cisses’ personal grievances are filtered through a variety of abstract perspectives — the pic begins with the narrated testimony of a traditional wooden sculpture — and environmental imagery before the film’s core human crisis emerges. In 2008, Cisse’s sisters were evicted by police from their rustic family home in the bustling Bamako neighborhood of Bozola, following an allegedly false claim (abetted by corrupt municipal practices) by the rival Diakite family. Cisse reconstructs the events, and his family’s ensuing protest, with hot, vivid anger, while the still-unresolved court case that followed is portrayed as representative of the impasse between warring cultural and religious factions in contemporary Mali.
As a study in ground-level resilience, it’s frequently rousing; Cisse still has a keen ear and eye for community conversation and color, and the film is at its most moving when it lets its subjects speak for themselves. When “Our House” expands its focus to national concerns, however, it loses clarity and conviction: The Cisse family’s eviction came four years before the coup d’etat that triggered civil war in Mali, and the film never quite forges a philosophical bridge between these contrastingly scaled struggles. Meanwhile, although the domestic dispute is depicted with empathy-inducing specificity, Cisse’s commentary on the war and its potential social legacy is limited to vague, didactic sloganeering: An overly protracted finale pummels viewers with multiple iterations of “Mali lives under the terror of modern tyrants” and “Knowledge always thinks of the future.” (Elsewhere, a comparison drawn between the Islamist insurgency and the events of 9/11 borders on the naive: Some might take issue with Cisse’s idealistic statement that America has “managed to remain united” in the years since.)
Technical contributions are adequate: Even if the digital lensing sometimes appears overly sun-bleached, the vibrancy of Bamako’s ochre-hued architecture and overdyed textiles blazes through. A quartet of editors sutures the helmer’s more journalistic and esoteric impulses to relatively coherent effect; the film is dedicated to one of them, Cisse’s longtime collaborator Andree Davanture, who passed away last year.