RIDM 2015 Review: They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile

Members of the band Songhoy Blues are among the musicians who appear in the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.

Members of the band Songhoy Blues are among the musicians who appear in the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.

They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile is a documentary about the difficulties faced by residents of northern Mali, especially the musicians, after a Tuareg rebellion in 2012 was hijacked by Islamist forces. Mosques, tombs, libraries, and ancient manuscripts were destroyed. The imposition of sharia law meant veils for women, amputated limbs for convicted thieves and a ban on all music – even ringtones on cellphones. Musicians fled cities like Gao and Timbuktu in fear for their lives. Among those who appear in the film, some went to Bamako, in Mali’s south, while others went to refugee camps in Burkina Faso.

Malian musician Fadimata Walett Oumar, who is nicknamed Disco, right, and her husband Hassan (Jimmy) Mehdi, in a scene from the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile. The film is being shown at RIDM, Montreal's documentary film festival.

Malian musician Fadimata Walett Oumar, who is nicknamed Disco, right, and her husband Hassan (Jimmy) Mehdi, in a scene from the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile. The film is being shown at RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival.

The people we meet include established stars Khaira Arby and Fadimata Walett Oumar (nicknamed Disco, because she was a big Madonna fan in her younger days). Disco is a longstanding member of the group Tartit, though it is not named until near the end of the film. She is also married to a high-ranking Malian soldier who changes allegiance more than once, which makes their lives somewhat complicated. The film also serves as a promotional vehicle for a younger band called Songhoy Blues, and includes footage from their U.K. tour. (Earlier this year, they toured North America, making stops at SXSW and in Toronto, too.) You can find music by Khaira Arby, Tartit and Songhoy Blues on iTunes; click on their names to go there. The film’s soundtrack will be released, but sadly, it isn’t ready yet. If you like what you heard in the film, check out Tinariwen, as well.

Khaira Arby is among the Malian musicians who appear in the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.

Khaira Arby is among the Malian musicians who appear in the documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.

Most of us will never see the wonders of Timbuktu in person, so I appreciated glimpses of them in the film. I suspect that some scenes were shot before the widespread destruction and that many of those intriguing structures no longer exist.

At 100 minutes, the film seems stretched out. I expected lots of music, since it is about musicians, after all, but got tantalizing snippets instead. There is lots of talking, and some of it is repetitive. Perhaps I am just a victim of my own expectations – the film has many positive reviews on the Internet. Sample quote from a review in the Austin Chronicle:
“Social journalism of the highest order, They Will Have to Kill Us First is by turns horrific and front-loaded with sonic heroism. It’s also one of the most vibrantly shot and masterfully edited documentaries of this or any other SXSW year.”

Full disclosure, I did watch They Will Have To Kill Us First at home via an online screener, which must have reduced its power considerably.

(Justified) spoiler: The film ends with a joyous outdoor concert in Timbuktu, with lots of happy women and children among the audience.
They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile (Click on the film’s name to read more about it on the RIDM web site.)

Friday, Nov. 13, 2:30 p.m.
Cinéma Du Parc 1 (Buy tickets here)

Saturday, Nov. 14, 215 p.m.
Cinéma Du Parc 2 (Buy tickets here)

They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile
Country : Mali, United Kingdom
Year : 2015
Language : English, Bambara, French, Songhay
Subtitles : English
Runtime : 100 min
Production : Kat Amara Korba, Sarah Mosses, Johanna Schwartz, John Schwartz
Cinematography : Karelle Walker
Editing : Andrea Carnevali, Guy Creasey
Sound : Phitz Hearne
RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs from Nov. 12-22, 2015. Visit the web site ridm.qc.ca for more information about the festival.

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