Tagnawittude: Film Review

A rich and underexposed musical tradition gets short shrift.

Rahma Benhamou El Madani's doc explores traditional Gnawa music from North and West Africa.

MONTREAL — An unsatisfying treatment of a deserving subject, Rahma Benhamou El Madani's doc Tagnawittudeabout traditional Gnawa music from North and West Africa displays some compelling raw footage but would require additional material and an insightful editor's touch to merit theatrical release. As it is, it would be disappointing viewing even on small screens.

Beginning with a cursory bit of voiceover about her mother, Algeria-born El Madani fails to explain her curiosity about this music. Nevertheless she sets off to film the modern fusion group Gnawa Diffusion without offering any background about the style's purpose and origins. She also assumes viewers will be able to place the Gnawa people in geopolitical terms.

Only piecemeal are we introduced to the stringed guembri, percussion instruments and trance-dances often involved in Gnawa gatherings. Offering both performance and interview footage of Gnawa Diffusion, El Madani makes the case for their legitimacy but leaves us wondering if they're the music's only modern ambassadors, or one of many.

Expanding her focus, she then goes to Essaouira for a Gnawa festival, filming mass performances in the street and intimate ones in the homes of master musicians. Though this footage is welcome especially when elders start to discuss their musical heritage, El Madani is either a poor interviewer or a poor editor of her interviews: Audiences may find their curiosity stoked only to walk away needing to hit Google to make sense of what they've seen.

Venue: Montreal World Film Festival, Documentaries of the World

Production Company: Plein Cadres

Director-screenwriter-producer: Rahma Benhamou El Madani

Director of photography: Mohamed Kounda, Rahma Benhamou El Madani

Editor: Yanis Polinacci

No rating, 79 minutes