Art Doc of the Week | They Will Have to Kill Us First

Almost four years ago, the world watched in horror as Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist sect, set about destroying centuries-old shrines, tombs and priceless old manuscripts in the ancient, storied city of Timbuktu, Mali, once a center of Islamic spiritual, artistic and academic life. Claiming that their acts of obliteration were done on “divine orders,” they depleted cultural and historical vaults of invaluable artifacts belonging not only to Mali or Africa, but to the world. As has been demonstrated repeatedly, death-riddled fundamentalist terrorism isn’t just about ridding the world of what terrorists deem false idols and wrong (or, in their view, improperly practiced) faith. It’s about eradicating joy and truly dynamic spirituality. It’s anti-life at its core.

Kharia Arby

Kharia Arby

Director Johanna Schwartz’s invigorating and sobering They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile opens with background text flashed onscreen: “Since 1963, the nomadic people of the Sahara, the Touaregs, have been fighting for an independent state in the north of Mali. During the recent rebellion, their cause has been led by the MNLA, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.” The film traces the effects of MNLA joining forces and then sparring with jihadists from the north (also in 2012), creating an alliance that resulted in the imposing of Shariah Law and a gutting of the way of life for the people supposedly being fought for – including the banning of music, which has historically been a core component of everyday life there.

Schwartz tracks the fallout from the edict, largely aiming her camera at the lives of the musicians who went into exile (some to southern Mali, others to Europe) with broken hearts but only fractured spirits. Juxtaposing their individual tales against the violence they escaped, she clears room for the music to speak of both their heartache and their longing for home. The performers are thoroughly engaging while speaking (if the slightly overlong film has a weakness, it’s that it’s spoiled for subjects and could have been trimmed a bit), but it is the music performances, exuberantly filmed and edited, that all but pull you out of your seat. From rap to soul to blues, the viewer is treated to a genre-spanning soundtrack that is an unbeatable argument for the depth and sublimity of Malian music.

Moussa, in Ouagadougou

Moussa, in Ouagadougou

Schwartz also complicates the popular narrative on terrorism by upending the familiar refrain “this [war against terror and terrorism] is about the clashing of modernity and medievalism.” The northern Mali people were and are deeply rooted in very, very old traditions and practices that are at the core of their way of life and in many ways are the very definition of cosmopolitan civility. The resilience of the Malian people is a testament to the power of those roots.  But the dark undercurrents of the film’s “happy ending” are a bracingly honest reflection of the costs of resistance – and the fact that, in today’s world, it has no finish line.

Screening dates and locations are here.

Songhoy Blues (Malian musician) NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

All photos courtesy BBC Worldwide

Previously on Art Doc of the Week: