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Film & Music

Mali's music is louder than war

New film They Will Have To Kill Us First tells the story of music's triumph over fundamentalism

Johanna Schwartz is no stranger to Africa. As a freelance producer/director she’s spent years covering environmental stories in the continent for BBC World. Yet she’d never had the opportunity to travel to Mali. "It was one of these places that I’d always tried to get to," she explains. "Years and years ago I’d read about the annual "festival in the desert" music festival, which has since been cancelled. Every year I always told myself I wanted to go because I was such a fan of the music."

Her opportunity finally came in 2012 when a friend relocated to Mali. Johanna had already begun planning her trip when everything began to kick off. It was late 2012 and the emergence of several Jihadist groups in Mali prompted international concern. With several strongholds in the northern part of the country, the jihadists were able to impose a strict application of Sharia law in their newly conquered territories, which included a ban of all secular music. Her documentary, They Will Have To Kill Us First, focuses on the lives of several displaced Malian musicians and their defiance of Jihadist rule.

Why Mali?

“I remember it very clearly, I was on the 388 bus going down Bethnal Green Road and I was reading all of these reports on my phone and sobbing. There are some stories that are able to hit you in ways that other ones can’t and sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on why it’s hit you in a particular way. Maybe it was because I was planning my trip there or maybe because I was such a huge fan. I thought it was such a tragedy. And that was the beginning of how it developed into a film. People keep asking me, well how did you decide to make this film? And I didn’t decide to make the film. It was just a gut thing. I just knew I had to go to Mali and that I wanted to make something and tell the story. I didn’t really know that we were going to have a film until a while later.  It really was the first time in my career that I went out without a commission. That was pretty huge for me. I was also pregnant at the time.”

How long did it take you to make the film?

"It’s been about two-and-a-half years from the moment I had the idea."

The story focuses on several different Malian musicians (Khaira Arby, Disco, Moussa, Songhoy Blues). How did you come about choosing your subjects?

"I didn’t have anyone specific in mind when I first went out there. Obviously I’d heard of Khaira Arby and the other big great musicians who’d had careers outside of Mali, but I didn’t really have any specific moment where I thought ‘Yes, this is absolutely the person I’d like to speak to.’ Really the first trip was supposed to be me just feeling my way through the region. I wanted to get a sense of what things were like on the ground. I had got in touch with a filmmaker who had been there before and he recommended a fixer. That fixer was busy so he recommended a different fixer. So I ended up working with this final fixer on the ground who was great and on our first day he told me, ‘I’m going to take you to the house of this singer who is my mum’s best friend.’ I said ‘Ok great, what’s her name?’ and he said ‘Khaira Arby’ and I thought ‘I know who that is!’ So on that very first day of the recce we met the person who would end up being the main character of the film, which is such a rare occurrence in projects like these. In lots of documentaries that are of this style you just kind of get out there and you start feeling your way through meeting people, then someone introduces you to a person who introduces you to another person.

“We went round to lots of musicians’ houses and we met all kinds of people and filmed a little bit with everybody. Things started falling into place in my mind and the characters that were best to tell a story emerged from the group/ But I have to say that the one person that was instrumental was Andy Morgan who was the original manager of the band Tinariwen. I went to him at the very beginning of the process and at first he was just helping me out out of the goodness of his heart but later on he became a full on consultant and then even later on he ended up becoming a co-writer. I kept on pulling him deeper and deeper into the process because he was brilliant. He actually is the one who pointed us in the direction of Disco and through Disco we found Moussa, because Moussa is actually Disco’s husband’s nephew, but that little bit of information didn’t make it through the final cut of the film. And it was also through Andy that we found Songhoy Blues because he was asked to write an article about them."

Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted the film to be about?

“No. That’s one of the joys of doing things on your own without a commission. You can feel your way through it and things can happen organically. But obviously there are also a lot of drawbacks; you don’t have the infrastructure, you don’t have the funding and a whole lot of other really important things. The joy of doing it this way is that the process is freer.

“When I went to Mali for the first time it was really supposed to be about research and maybe to do a little bit of filming and see how I got on. But then we ended up finding Khaira Arby on that first trip. I would film with two or three people every time I went but it was really during those first four trips that we figured out the main characters that ended up staying in the film. The story just kind of evolved. At the beginning we thought that we would be focusing quite heavily on the festival in the desert because the Malian music scene was the thing that I knew most. I thought we’d concentrate on the organiser of that festival. I had this whole other thing in my head that was a probability but I think it’s very important that you remain open and don’t fixate too heavily on what story you’re going to do before you get there because the stories are constantly evolving especially in a place that’s at war. So we just kinda let things go and the story came out of it."

“I had no idea when I first met Khaira that she was planning to bring music back to Timbuktu. She didn’t actually mention it until April 2014. I went round to her house for tea and she said ‘Yes I’d like to do a concert in Timbuktu’ and I was absolutely floored. It took her from April to December to get it off the ground but she did it and we were with her when she did. It was completely extraordinary but up until that point we had no idea what the ending of the film was going to be. I didn’t know if we were going to pull it off because there were suicide bomb attacks in the region in the weeks leading up to that performance. We had a few alternative endings planned out in case that one didn’t work out. But I think it’s good to be flexible in documentaries because documentaries are a real test of willpower and fluidity."

What is the situation now in Timbuktu?

“It’s so hard to say. At the moment the extremist groups (which have now grown in number since we started filming) are not in control of cities in the north. So theoretically music is not banned because at the moment the extremist groups are not calling the shots. But they are still there and attacks are happening every single month, almost weekly there’ll be an attack somewhere. The scary thing at the moment is that the area in which attacks are staged has grown. When we were out there filming it was pretty much confined to the north like Gao. But actually since we wrapped filming, the attacks have been creeping further south. There was an attack in Bamako and there have been a number of attacks on the border with Burkina Faso and Cote D’Ivoire. fNobody’s really sure what’s going to happen and the extremist groups are growing in number. So there isn’t a technical music ban since sharia law is not in place in northern Mali but there is still a self-imposed curbing because people are still very fearful. The government and the separatist MNLA have this very shaky peace agreement.

"The peace agreement was signed in June but there have been many skirmishes and uprisings and pro-government militia forces have fought with MNLA forces a number of times since the peace agreement was signed. There is a peace agreement on paper but how effective is this really on the ground? The fact that the north and the south are still having these internal struggles means that the country is ripe for these extremist groups to further destabilise. When countries are so unstable, that’s when extremist groups can come in and get power."

Moussa’s wife is overtaken by fear throughout the documentary. How did stories like hers impact you during filming?

“I don’t know how other filmmakers feel when they are out in the field  but I tend not to experience my own feelings when I’m working. I know that might sound very strange but I tend to feel things afterwards rather than at the time. I had a very extraordinary moment when we were done filming and editing and I finally went to the cinema to see the narrative feature film Timbuktu which came out during the process of us making our film. It’s a fiction film but it follows the same time period as our film. I sat through the feature in the cinema and wept and wept and wept. I realised whilst I was watching this film that this was the first time I was allowing myself  to actually feel all of the things that I felt when I was out in Mali working.

“When I was out in Mali I was solely concentrated on what the characters we were filming were feeling and what they were going through. I couldn’t really give my own feelings a second thought and I didn’t realise I was doing that until I sat down and watched ‘Timbuktu’ at the cinema. I didn’t really think about myself or how I felt about being there because I wa so tied up in what the characters were feeling.”

Towards the end the characters all seem to exhibit a strong longing for home. Was that an intentional storyline you wanted to include?

“I’m so glad you picked up on that because it’s a great example of something that I didn’t have in my head when we started, but as we were making the film became very apparent and became a main subtext of this film. There isn’t a single character in this film that doesn’t want to go home. And right now with everything that’s happening in the world I think it’s an incredibly important narrative for people to understand. I don’t think people really understand and it’s one of the huge misconceptions about refugees. I’m really hoping that the film can show people the kind of emotional journey that a refugee undergoes when they leave. All they want to do is get home. I was very keen to bring out that connection to the place where you come from because it was so important to the characters in the film.”

Are you still in contact with any of the people from the film?

“Yes I am. We’re in touch with them all the time, especially now that the film is coming out in various parts of the world and we want them to really be the story. It’s not really the film for me that’s the story, it’s the characters. Songhoy Blues are actually on tour in Europe when the film comes out there so we’re coordinating dates so that they can be available for Q&As and talks. Khaira Arby is also on tour in Europe when the film comes out and she is doing an event for us in Copenhagen and Berlin alongside screening of the film. We had lost track of Moussa for a few months until I eventually called my fixer in Mali to ask him if he knew anybody in Gao since that was the last place we heard that Moussa was. So our fixer called his friend in Gao who went looking for Moussa and they found him. He had moved and his phone had been stolen so we sent our fixer’s friend some money so Moussa could buy a new phone and we could keep in contact. I mean, sometimes it’s hard to keep in contact with people whilst with others it’s easy. With Songhoy Blues we mainly communicate via Facebook so that’s easy. I’m sure that we’ll be in contact for a long a time.”

Have any of them seen the film yet?

“I think the only people  who have seen the film are Songhoy Blues. We’ve done some Q&As together and I think that they love the film because they keep watching it. Beyond that, I don’t know what they think but it would be interesting to know what kind of complicated emotions people go through watching their lives on screen. Khaira is actually going to see the film for the first time in Copenhagen at the end of October and I will also be there.”

You had a lot of Kickstarter donations in support of the film. How effective do you think that was in enabling you to tell the story you wanted to tell?

“It was vital. We could not have done this without kickstarter. There’s no question in my mind about it. At the very beginning of the process we had talked to a few people about funding  and various parties were interested in giving us funding but nobody was ready to do that when we needed it. So without actually reaching to the Mali music fans around the world there’s just no way we would have even been able to do really basic stuff like buy plane tickets and hire camera equipment. If you don’t have basic funding you can’t even begin making a film in another part of the world, so it was huge. It was so incredible to reach out and have people reach back. We met a lot of people through Kickstarter who became supporters. These were perfect strangers who ended up playing quite big roles within the film. For example, a wonderful guy from the north of England contacted us. He is a graphic designer who does film posters and he said ‘I’ve given some money to the film and I think the film looks extraordinary. I’m a big fan of Malian musicians. Can I do a poster for you?’ He said he’d do a draft to start off with and we could work from there. He then sent a first draft poster through and that’s the poster we stuck with. It was absolutely perfect for us. The design he came up with at the beginning of this process actually helped me to set the tone for the whole film because I used the whole punk rock theme of the poster to inspire me.

“We had a guy in Philadelphia throw a fundraiser on our behalf. He was a musician and couldn’t believe that music had been banned in Mali. We also had a graffiti artist in England who donated all of the profits of his various sales to the Kickstarter campaign. I was realising just how much the story was touching people before it was even made and that really gave me a lot of motivation to finish it. Having all of these Kickstarter supporters at the very start of the project come out and say they wanted to see this film made was a huge boost and was a constant reminder that we were doing the right thing in making this film."

What do you want people to take away from watching the film?

“I think that different people are going to take away completely different things from the film and that’s actually one of my favourite things about it. There’s so much in there for different people to take away. We talked about this idea that all the refugees in the film are just trying to get home. I think if a people can take that message away it would be wonderful. There’ll be a whole other group of people for whom the main thing they take away is ‘I love this music!’ which is also brilliant. There are more complex things that people will be able to take away from the film too. In France and in America there is a lot of anti-Muslim feeling and I think that the film can go a long way towards addressing that because every single person in the film is Muslim and I think that’s very apparent. This false idea that every Muslim person is an extremist sounds crazy when you say it out loud but there are some people out there who believe that, and I’m hoping that this film can reach people and maybe help to change their minds about that. There’s a ton of things that I think people can take away but at the very least the one thing I’d like for people to come away with after watching the film is a newfound love for the musicians and to actually go out and buy their albums.”

They Will Have To Kill Us First opens in cinemas on 13 October


Charlene is the commissioning editor, World for Little Atoms.