DIR: Johanna Schwartz • PRO: Kat Amara Korba, Sarah Mosses, Johanna Schwartz, Andre Singer • DOP: Karelle Walker • ED: Andrea Carnevali, Guy Creasey • MUS: Carmen Montanez Callan, Nick Zinner • CAST: Khaira Arby, Moussa Sidi, Fadimata ‘Disco’ Walet Oumar, Oumar Toure Aliou Toure, Garba Toure, Nathanael Dembele
In 2012, after a coup in the capital Bamako, an alliance between jihadists and local Touareg militia, the MNLA, took over the northern half of Mali. Once control of the region was taken, the MNLA soon found out the jihadis had much more planned that what they had agreed upon. Like their counterparts in Syria are doing at the moment, they destroyed many ancient treasures and imposed their usual brand and limb-chopping Islamic law.
But perhaps the most soul-destroying part of their new reign was their ban on music. All of it. They Will Have to Kill Us First, a new documentary from director Johanna Schwartz, follows the lives of some of northern Mali’s musicians as they continue to do what they love in the country’s slightly calmer south or in neighbouring Burkina Faso.
This could easily have been a film about refugees wallowing and crying for lost days and lost times. And if it had been, nobody would’ve blamed the musicians or the filmmakers. But what it shows instead is people in action. And much credit must be given for this because it makes the film shine. The musicians are trying to do what they can to help their country recover. That recovery will take more than music but if bullets have the power to stop people, the musicians seems to think music may be a way of getting those left moving again.
Fadimata ‘Disco’ Walet Oumar, a lively and determined woman whose husband was originally a leader in the MNLA, is filmed in a refugee camp in Burkina Faso leading others there in song. She says what she thought when she decided to leave Mali, “I sing, I talk, it may cause me problems.” It is the same kind of chin-up and out attitude that all those in the film have.
The cinematography shows the ruins of the country’s troubles but far more often focuses on the life and vibrancy left in the people and their cities. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the film are just shots of ordinary Malians smiling while dancing to music.
Four young refugees from the north formed a band when they met as refugees in Bamako. And while the jihadis ride around in pickups trucks carrying machine guns, they ride on motorbikes carrying guitars. They are Songhoy Blues, maybe the most talented artists in the film.
They are four intelligent and expressive young men who are on a mission to help solve some of their country’s problems. They sit on the banks of a river composing a song asking the Malian diaspora to return home to help rebuild their country. They intensely workout chords and debate lyrics until after the sun goes down and they realise the camera crew probably isn’t safe where they are after dark.
They say they “went to war” when making their first record, Music in Exile, and the film follows the lads as they go to the UK to tour and at their gig supporting Damon Albarn of Blur.
Khaira Arby, who seems to be northern Mali’s answer to Aretha Franklin speaks throughout the film of wanting to return to Timbuktu to put on a concert there. The filmmakers follow her as she contacts other musicians trying to make the dream a reality.
The film shows the vibrancy of the country without ignoring the misery. One thing all the musicians share is resilience. It’s a great story from an ignored part of the world. The jihadis may fly the black flag but that doesn’t mean these musicians have any intention of flying the white one.
They Will Have to Kill Us First is released 30th October 2015