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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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Cinema Politica Concordia: Fast food workers in New York fight for rights and wages in The Hand That Feeds

 

Still4credit: Jed BrandtDiego Iba–ez, left, and Mahoma L—pez in a scene from the documentary filme The hand That Feeds. Photo credit: Jed Brandt

Diego Iba–nez, left, and Mahoma Lo—pez in a scene from the documentary film The Hand That Feeds. Photo credit: Jed Brandt

The Concordia branch of Cinema Politica gets back into gear for the 2015-2016 school year with The Hand That Feeds, on Monday, Sept. 21, 2015.

The award-winning documentary, written, directed and produced by Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick, follows fast-food workers in Manhattan as they struggle for decent wages, safer working conditions and respect. A brief description on the website of The Hand That Feeds reads: “Shy sandwich-maker Mahoma Lopez unites his undocumented immigrant coworkers to fight abusive conditions at a popular New York restaurant chain. The epic power struggle that ensues turns a single city block into a battlefield in America’s new wage wars.”

Mexican immigrant Lopez worked at an Upper East Side branch of a 24-hour deli called Hot & Crusty Bagel Cafe. Employees were underpaid and often verbally abused. They were not entitled to vacations or sick days. In a six-minute video “Op-doc” called Occupy Bakery that Lears and Robin Blotnick made for the New York Times, Lopez remarks that “consumers want to buy organic food, and they worry about how animals are treated. . .but why aren’t these same values applied to people?”

In the text that accompanies their video, the filmmakers state: “In the early 20th century, immigrants were at the forefront of the labor movement that helped build our middle class. Today, when the fastest growing job sectors are retail and food preparation, the struggles of low-income workers and their families matter more than ever. Turning these jobs into living-wage jobs while fixing our broken immigration system would lift millions out of poverty and benefit our entire economy by increasing consumption and tax revenue. Mr. López’s story is part of a growing wave of low-wage and immigrant workers organizing across New York City and around the country that has the potential to spark this kind of change. It’s time we admit it: America runs on the labor of the undocumented. Their struggle for rights, inside and outside the workplace, is an inseparable part of our democratic project.”

To me, it seems both moral and logical that people receive a decent salary for their hard work. And yet, a short review of The Hand That Feeds in Mother Jones magazine mentions a scene that shows “a co-worker counting out the $290 he’s just received for a 60-hour workweek. . .” Other articles about fast foodworkers in New York indicate that some work as long as 72 per week without receiving any overtime pay.

It’s important to note, as well, that Hot & Crusty was not some mom-and-pop operation, either. According to an article on the web site Waging Non-Violence,  it was a “corporate restaurant chain backed by a multimillion dollar private equity investment firm.”

Many enthusiastic reviews have been written about The Hand That Feeds. IndieWire calls it “a rousing chronicle” and a “well-plotted and captivating David & Goliath story,” RogerEbert.com calls it “suspenseful and inspiring” and the Village Voice says that it’s “filmed with the urgency and suspense of a Hitchcock thriller.”

In his review, Frank Scheck of the Hollywood Reporter points out that Lopez is a “likeable, camera-friendly personality,” while Jen Chaney of The Dissolve reminds us that the fight was very much a group effort: “The victories in the effort to establish the Hot & Crusty Workers’ Association speak to what happens when multiple individuals channel their efforts toward a worthwhile cause. The employees at Hot & Crusty stage protests, organize picket lines, and circulate flyers, but their actions have the most impact when they are joined by people in the community, fired-up change agents from the then-burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement, and members of other unions who rally behind their cause. By building the documentary around an ensemble cast, Lears and Blotnick demonstrate, in terms of content as well as filmmaking, that the voices of a few can galvanize the voices of many.”

In a scene from the documentary film The Hand That Feeds, Nazario G., left, and Felicito Tapia illustrate the principle that working together can creates powerful results. Photo credit: Jed Brandt

In a scene from the documentary film The Hand That Feeds, Nazario G., left, and Felicito Tapia illustrate the principle that working together can creates powerful results. Photo credit: Jed Brandt

In a Women and Hollywood article for IndieWire, co-director Rachel Lears was asked: “What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?” Her reply was: “I would hope that people leave the theater with an invigorated sense that it’s possible to stand up – individually and collectively –  and create meaningful, local change that really affects either their own lives or those of others.”

If you watch the trailer for The Hand That Feeds that’s just below this blog post, you’ll see that someone has remarked; “minimum wage jobs are for highschoolers. . .” Kevin Jagernauth of the The Playlist tackles that misconception in his review of the film: “What’s most astonishing in watching the documentary is the commitment these workers have to keeping the kind of jobs that many presume are disposable, given to high turnover, or simply a waystation or rite of passage on the way to something better. What “The Hand That Feeds” admirably makes clear is that these aren’t teenagers or students earning extra cash on the side. These are men and women with responsibilities to their spouses and children, with rent to pay, and other expenses, who don’t have the luxury to quit and find something else. Each paycheck matters, but by the same token, while they are willing to work hard, there is only so far they will allow themselves to be abused, not just by management, but by a system (particularly in the food industry) that regards their efforts as minimal, unimportant, and replaceable.”

THE HAND THAT FEEDS
Directed by Rachel Lears & Robin Blotnick / United States / 2014 / 84 ‘ / Spanish – English / with English subtitles
Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, 7 p.m.
Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd., W., H-110, Montreal
The screening is part of DisOrientation 2015, co-presented with Solidarity Across Borders and Concordia Food Coalition, and will be followed by a discussion with organizers and members of the Immigrant Workers Centre – Montreal. The venue is wheelchair accessible.

Documentary film How to Save the World examines the early days of Greenpeace

A Russian whaling ship towers over protesting members of Greenpeace.

A Russian whaling ship towers over protesting members of Greenpeace.

 

RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival, takes place in November. But outside of that framework, RIDM’s Docville series presents a film at Excentris on the last Thursday of the month.

The selection for May, How To Change the World looks at the early days of Greenpeace. The non-governmental environmental organization now has branches in 41 countries, but it got its start in Vancouver, B.C., back in the 1970s.

Long before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, smart phones, and widespread access to the World Wide Web, Greenpeace activists were able to galvanize the public against the testing of nuclear weapons, and the killing of whales and baby seals. They famously vowed to place themselves between the harpoons of fishermen and the whales those fishermen were hunting. Look at the trailer below, to see how vulnerable the Greenpeace members were, bobbing on the ocean waves in their small, inflatable boats while huge whaling ships loomed over them.

How To Change the World is a Canada-U.K. co-production, directed by Jerry Rothwell. Rothwell was blessed with access to many hours of original 16 mm footage that had been shot by cinematographer Ron Precious near the beginning of his career. In an interview with IndieWire, Precious says: “We got some great images for sure, like [Greenpeace co-founder] Paul Watson on the back of a dead whale. These are images that become iconic. For me, they’re some of my proudest moments. My entire career in film, nothing tops that. What gave me the most satisfaction was the days doing that work with Greenpeace.”

Canadian hippie journalists, photographers, musicians, scientists, and U.S. draft dodgers were among the people who created Greenpeace.

Canadian hippie journalists, photographers, musicians, scientists, and U.S. draft dodgers were among the people who created Greenpeace.

In his Director’s Notes, Rothwell writes: “The group had a prescient understanding of the power of media, knowing that capturing the perfect image was the most powerful weapon of all. But their footage richly evokes not only the dramatic actions they undertook, but their friendships and conflicts, dilemmas and decisions – a sometimes crazy mix of psychedelia and politics, science and theatre.”

In addition to dealing with dramatic public actions by Greenpeace, the film goes behind the scenes to document the internal workings of the group and disagreements and power struggles between three of the founders Paul Watson, Patrick Moore and Bob Hunter.

The film’s soundtrack includes music from Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, Canned Heat and Country Joe and the Fish.

How To Change the World had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and has been shown at many other festivals since then, including Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival, DOXA in Vancouver, theTrue/False Film Fest in Columbia, Mo., and the EcoFilm Festival in Portland, Ore. Future screenings will take place in San Francisco, Sheffield, England, Sydney and Canberra, Australia, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Oakville, Ontario.

Embed from Getty Images

Will Jackson, left, Bous De Jong, Bobbi Hunter, Al Morrow, director Jerry Rothwell, John Murray, Rex Wyler and Emily Hunter at How To Change The World premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 22, 2015 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for Sundance)

 

HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD
Directed by Jerry Rothwell. Canada/United Kingdom. 2015. 112 min. In the original English.
Thursday, May 28, 8 p.m., Cinéma Excentris, 3536 St Laurent Blvd.

Tickets can be bought online.

For more information, visit the How to Change the World Facebook page, or the How to Change the World web site.