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Malick Sidibé: Portrait of the Artist as a Portraitist

by Susan Vogel
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, USA, 2006
VHS, 8 mins., col.
Sales video-DVD, $125.00; rental video, $35.00
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Martha Blassnigg
University of Plymouth


Malick Sidibé: Portrait of the Artist as a Portraitist by Susan Vogel is co-produced with the National Museum of Mali in Bamako and distributed by First Run/Icarus Films. Of its many virtues the most outstanding is that it is a very good example of a documentary film that compresses its essence in just enough time it needs to make its point. It is a well constructed and intelligently conceptualized ‘short,’ which as many filmmakers agree is often more difficult to accomplish than a long film. Susan Vogel has shot this warm-hearted portrait of the famous photographer, Malick Sidibé, from Bamako in Mali and compressed her material into eight minutes. As a consequence of her skill, every shot has meaning, and its particular place in the montage; nothing seems redundant. Vogel presents an interview with Sidibé in the open air, in bright sunlight, in close-up, in which he shares a brief history of his photographic career, his passion for photography and love for his subjects, the liveliness of images, and the intense experience of the present moment. Vogel also shows us Sidibé in his studio at work, arranging the lighting and his very relaxed and lively style of interaction with his clients intended to make them feel comfortable and gay. These sequences are interposed with black and white photographs from Sidibé’s archive, especially from the Sixties. They show us dancing couples, rock and roll teenagers, and the latest "hip" fashion; along with his portraits they capture vital moments, always motion never just a posture or fixed form. The dance photographs are accompanied with music indigenous to Mali, gay and rhythmic, which underlines the Malian context. Perhaps most revealing is that clearly in the Sixties Bamako was as stylish as New York and Carnaby Street.

This film stands also exemplary of a documentary film that does not need any introduction, explanation, or commentary. Through visual language and sound alone, the film shows with brilliant economy what it intends to tell but more than that what the viewer is enabled to sense. It is a subtle portrait that, in contrast to the common information-driven documentary film style, liberates the story from its narrative constrains and instead expresses a "joie de vie", the joy and passion for life and the celebratory expression of that passion through photography. Something of Sidibé’s spirit and wisdom is captured in his photographs and, certainly, is also captured by this film. At first glance, an eight minute video hardly seems worth the effort; however, since Susan Vogel has made such a brilliant and exemplary documentary, and Malick Sidibé’s portrait is so full of energy and his photographs of historical significance, I can only recommend this film and also express the hope that it may be distributed in a more ‘lively’ and accessible format than a video tape.



Updated 1st June 2006

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