Director Johanna Schwartz’s clearly made her debut a very powerful message in this feature documentary to show that music is the beating heart of Malian culture. Her devotion and passion in telling this story is even noticed just by viewing the title of the film, They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile. Johanna Schwartz’s music documentary opens with an explanatory text and French-language rap.
The filmmaker indeed captures and documents the struggle of the Malian musicians to survive the privations and strains of civil war, when Islamic Jihadists took control of Northern Mali in 2012. By doing so they enforced one of the harshest interpretations of Sharia Law by banning all forms of music. Their grief and horror are captured over the way Jihadist rebels banned all music-making and the declaration of Sharia Law has caused many residents of Timbuktu and Gao leave for surrounding countries, such as Burkina Faso.
Ban music? Sounds familiar? We all remember the 1984 American musical drama film, Footloose, directed by Herbert Ross. It tells the story of Ren McCormack, played by Kevin Bacon, an upbeat teen who moves in to a small town where dancing and playing music is banned because the pastor’s son dies in a bridge accident after a night of doing drugs and partying. The film is loosely based on true events that took place in the small, rural, and religious community of Elmore City, Oklahoma.
In the film, They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile, for Malians particularly, such a ban is monstrous and cruel and under the imposition of Islamist Sharia Law, musical expression in Northern Mali was not just undermined, but outlawed and those that disobeyed faced intimidation, mutilation and death. Naturally, musicians became refugees and were forced into hiding or exile, where most remain, even now. One recalls being told: “Don’t play your guitar and you won’t get hurt.”
The story is well put together and follows Songhoy Blues and musicians Kharia Arby, Fadimata “Disco” Walet Oumar, and Moussa Sidi as they each deal with the unfathomable situation in different ways. In addition, Schwartz inserts footage of the uprising of Touareg Separatists, revealing footage of the Jihadists but focusing in the struggle of the Malian musicians, and testament on rather than laying down their instruments, these courageous artists fought back, standing up for their freedoms and using music as a weapon against the ongoing violence that has ravaged their homeland.
The band Songhoy Blues was a highlight for me, from their formation in Bamako to their international collaborations with Africa Express, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner left me breathless and the focal point of the film.
Music, says Khaira, is like oxygen; people cannot live without it. It’s a lovely statement that defines our identity, as integral to their existence as their ability to draw breath.
Co-written by Schwartz and Andy Morgan, renowned journalist and former manager of Grammy® Award winning band Tinariwen, They Will Have To Kill Us First is produced by Sarah Mosses of Together Films and executive produced by Andre Singer (The Act of Killing) alongside Stephen Hendel, Victoria Steventon, OKAY Africa and Knitting Factory Entertainment.
They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile, features an original score by Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and a commissioned soundtrack featuring Songhoy Blues, Kharia Arby, Fadimata “Disco” Walet Oumar, Moussa Sidi and many more. To be released theatrically on March 4 in New York (Village East Cinema) and April 1 in Los Angeles (Laemmle Santa Monica Theater) timed to the film’s release and Music Freedom Day 2016 with Additional Markets to follow.
Remarkable film to watch, very inspiring, a frontline documentary. This film will make you want to appreciate life and what you have.
Note: This review was conducted from a Final NYC press screening conducted yesterday February 23.