“They Will Have to Kill Us First,” a powerful new documentary from Johanna Schwartz, looks at censorship taken to the extreme. In 2012, as Islamic jihadists controlled northern Mali in Africa, they banned all forms of music. Yet, as Schwartz’s camera shows, many musicians refused to give up the passion and beauty of their music.
“There’s a difference between sort of watching these things on your television and reading about them in the newspaper from the comfort of your own home and actually experiencing them there on the ground. I think that, very often, things look and feel very, very far away and feel very different when you get there,” director Schwartz explained when reached by phone for an interview.
When asked about the dangers of traveling to the West African location, Schwartz said she didn’t think much about that when they first went in. “It was really a gut reaction to go and make this film. It was a horrific situation that was happening at that very moment. And just as I decided to go, I didn’t think too much about the danger I would be in or what I was walking into. It was just sort of a weird gut need, feeling to document this story,” she said.
The director is quick to point out that for the subjects in her film, the stakes were much higher than for the documentary crew. “We could always just get on a plane and go home. A musician can’t do that; this is their home. When you have that perspective put in front of you, it changes your mind a little bit about the situation you are in. We didn’t think much about the danger; obviously, we were very careful. We didn’t want anyone to get hurt. We listened to our team on the ground; we listened to the U.N.”
Joining Schwartz on the call, journalist Andy Morgan, who co-wrote the film, said that a documentary is written as it is being done.
“You grope around in the dark until you feel your hand is on something,” he explained. “It is like a picture coming into focus. We had certain criteria that we felt was important from the start: one, that it was going to be led by the characters. Those characters had to be intimately affected by the conflict itself. Either themselves or their families or both.”
Morgan also pointed out that they didn’t want Western stars to come in and sort of “sanctify” what was going on. “We didn’t feel that was necessary. The main job at the beginning was identifying the protagonists,” he said. “Once those were in place, then we have to build an arc. It starts in a very sad, sort of blue atmosphere of loss and grief and repression. And then move gradually, move through triumph and loss through the film to this great climax in Timbuktu.”
Director Schwartz added that they didn’t have a plotline in place; they just allowed things to unfold in front of the camera: “I definitely didn’t think when we started this film we were going to end up with a happy ending. I think it’s quite an inspirational and triumphant ending.”
“They Will Have to Kill Us First” currently is playing in Laemmle Monica Theater in Los Angeles and the Edwards University Town Center 6 in Irvine.