'They Will Have to Kill Us First': Film Review

Courtesy of Film Society of Lincoln Center
Worthy doc is less musically thrilling than it might have been.

Malian musicians struggle with an extremist ban on broadcasting of music.

One consequence of the complicated turmoil that erupted in Mali in 2012 was that, in the northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu, Islamist extremists forbade the broadcasting of music. In a country globally renowned for its musical traditions (represented by stars like the late Ali Farka Toure), being a singer or instrumentalist was suddenly dangerous. Johanna Schwartz sees how keepers of the flame coped in They Will Have to Kill Us First, a documentary supplying just enough political background to explain the plight of the handful of artists she follows. Enlightening but less a musical showcase than viewers may expect, it should play well on video after a niche theatrical run.

Globally conscious music fans may know Songhoy Blues, a group from Mali promoted by Damon Albarn's Africa Express project. Schwartz finds them before Albarn does, shortly after these new Bamako residents — living in the southern city after fleeing from their Northern Mali homes — decided to play gigs together. Complaining that their new town had "many northerners, but no vibes," they set out to change that. In a lovely dusk scene on a river bank, she watches them try to put their longings for their troubled country into songs for outsiders.

The film has several other stars, from the veteran Timbuktu singer Khaira Arby to guitarist Moussa Sidi, whose beard and turban mean he is often mistaken for one of the Islamists who have banned his livelihood and threatened his wife. Many have taken refuge outside of Mali in Burkina Faso; all want to go home.

Disco, a middle-aged singer who got her nickname because she loved Madonna's "Holiday," illustrates some of the personal dilemmas faced by Malians. She is married to a soldier who thought he was fighting for Tuareg independence only to find his forces co-opted by Islamist insurgents. It's easy to see how loyalties are confused here, and why it takes some time for her husband to put down his gun.

The film cuts too quickly from one story to another, echoing the disarray it sees but preventing us from forming deep attachments. In its second half, it does a better job of following Songhoy Blues' surprise success than of chronicling efforts to stage a defiant concert in Timbuktu. The latter is a drama-ready project, and it's gratifying to see the large turnout for the open-air event. But many will find this scene the most glaring missed opportunity of the film: Instead of showcasing the day's performances, Schwartz fades those out in favor of a montage accompanied by the same kind of generic, spirits-rising chords all docs resort to when they want to portray the indomitable spirit of everyday people.

Distributor: BBC Worldwide North America
Production company: Mojo Musique
Director: Johanna Schwartz
Screenwriters: Johanna Schwartz, Andy Morgan
Producers: Kat Amara Korba, Sarah Mosses, Johanna Schwartz, John Schwartz
Executive producers: Andre Singer, Stephen Hendel, Victoria Steventon
Director of photography: Karelle Walker
Editors: Andrea Carnevali, Guy Creasey
Composer: Nick Zinner

In Bambara, English, French, Songhay, Tamashek

Not rated, 99 minutes