Film Review: They Will Have to Kill Us First

Spirituality & Health Magazine
reviewed by Bilge Ebiri

They Will Have to Kill Us First
Johanna Schwartz
Together Films

Johanna Schwartz’s wonderful documentary begins with a blast of hip-hop describing the Jihadi takeover of Mali in 2012. That gives you a good idea of the overall mood of this film—pained, resolute, vibrant in the face of tragedy. Schwartz follows a number of musicians from the African country, particularly from the besieged cities of Gao and Timbuktu, as they struggle to survive away from home, dreaming of returning. The jihadists outlawed music and imposed sharia law, which meant that musicians could be brutally punished, even killed, for performing. So, we meet Khaira Arby, a legend in her country, as she anxiously awaits the day she will be allowed to perform again; Moussa, a guitarist forced to leave his wife behind during the civil war; the group Songhoy Blues, who formed in exile in Burkina Faso and got the opportunity to tour with Blur’s Damon Albarn; Disco, a singer (so named for her childhood love of Madonna) married to an underground political leader.

The film also interweaves news footage of the battles that raged for these cities, which gives it an immediacy that can sometimes be lacking in documentaries that take oblique approaches to current events. But perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Schwartz’s film—besides the music, of course—lies in its willingness to get into the nuances of the political situation in Mali. Rather than offering simple, and simplistic, explanations of the country’s political strife, the film is unafraid to tackle the complexity of the warring factions, and of these exiles’ occasionally torn feelings about what is happening in their homeland. 

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