In an alternate reality where you’re reading this website in 2012 northern Mali instead of 2016 America, you should be worried.
If the wrong people look over your shoulder, your laptop will be destroyed or confiscated. If they happen to find any guitars, CDs, or other music-related paraphernalia in your possession, those items won’t survive the afternoon intact, either. And seeing as how the “wrong people” we’re discussing have a track record of cutting people’s hands off, stoning them to death, and live streaming decapitations, your stuff getting smashed up even isn’t close to a worst-case scenario.
In a regrettable bid to strengthen their occupation of northern Mali, the separatist faction dubbed the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) threw their lot in with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Dine in May 2012. Sharia law took hold throughout the jihadist-occupied territory, which included the nation’s largest cities: Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal.
Football, alcohol, tobacco, and being a woman (pretty much) were all outlawed. Possibly in an effort to squash local morale, the jihadists took special care to banish music. Not only were public performances banned, radio stations and recording studios were raided and annihilated. According to U.K. filmmaker Johanna Schwartz, the militants went so far as to criminalize cellphone ringtones of what they deemed an excessively melodious nature.
In the months preceding the uprising, Schwartz was making arrangements to attend The Festival in the Desert — Mali’s answer to Coachella. Although the uprising dropped the kibosh on those plans, Schwartz leapt at the opportunity to chronicle the northern Malian conflict from an underreported perspective.
The result, the documentary They Will Have To Kill Us First, follows desert punk outfit Songhoy Blues, Afro-beat legend Khaira Arby (a singer whose affinity for ‘80s American pop earned her the alias “Disco”) and other unlikely outlaws from the beginnings of the Ansar Dine’s takeover to the first post-ban concert in Timbuktu.
While the official fundamentalist presence is long gone out of Mali, very legitimate fears of insane murderous zealots lurking in the peripherals have created what Schwartz describes as a “self-imposed” music ban, which continues to this very day. The film’s triumphant finale, it’s worth noting, takes place more than a year after the French Army knocked the jihadists out of power in 2013.
They Will Have to Kill Us First screens in Gloucester, MA, on April 20, and in Newburyport on the 22nd. Vanyaland caught up with Schwartz, who marks her feature-length directorial debut with They Will Have To Kill Us First, during a press junket last month.
Barry Thompson: Why hone in on musicians with this documentary, as opposed to all the other groups of people the jihadists messed with?
Johanna Schwartz: As a filmmaker, what you’re looking for, always, in a story about an incredibly complex and complicated situation, is an avenue or prism to tell that story to a much wider audience. And when I found out that musicians and bands, among other things, had been banned in Mali, it struck me in my heart in a way that no other headline was striking me at that moment.
When you ban music in a place like Mali, in ways, it’s much harsher than were you to ban it somewhere else, because music is so incredibly important in their society. And I just knew that the idea of music being banned could reach an audience that wouldn’t necessarily be interested in a story about what was happening with the separatist army. Music can cross cultures, it can cross borders. Music is completely universal, and that’s what attracted me to the story.
So, you started shooting at the onset of the occupation in 2012, and kept filming on and off for almost three years. How long did the editing process take?
We had two editors, because we were incredibly anxious to premier this film at South-By-Southwest. Every producer in the world will tell you, “Do not rush for a festival deadline. Cut your film, give it the amount of time you need, don’t give yourself these deadlines.” But I just didn’t listen to anyone. So we had two editors editing for four or five months. We were just pouring through the story, and it was very intensive, but I’m incredibly pleased with what we came up with at the end. Now we’re releasing the film in the U.S., which I’m so unbelievably thrilled to do. Not very many documentaries get to do that.
There’s no sensationalism in They Will Have To Kill Us First. Everything’s presented very matter-of-factly, you don’t ever jump in front of the camera and do a Morgan Spurlock bit for the audience. Was there ever a temptation to Hollywood-up the story?
It’s interesting because any time you film somewhere like Mali, you’re presented with gift after gift. We didn’t need to dramatize anything. Every useful scene and incredible moment — it was all just there. Really, my job as a filmmaker was just to capture it and be true to the way it happened, and not interject my own thoughts or feelings or ideas of how this should be or how this should look or how the audience should be feeling at this moment. The story was extraordinary enough that we just had to let it play out in front of us and make sure that our cameras were rolling.
Even one of the Songhoy Blues guys points out that the jihadists’ purported feelings against technology don’t appear sincere — they have jeeps, guns, GPS, ect. So how do they pick what to ban? Why ban alcohol and tobacco?
Y’know, I can’t speak for the jihadists. Why did they zero in on anything? Women were banned from going out. They had to wear the veil. They were banning football. They were banning cigarettes. It was all very disparate and random. In the film, the Songhoy Blues guys say this had practically nothing to do with religion. Every single person in this film is Muslim, and they couldn’t understand how these random people could come in and say, “Actually, you’re not Muslim. Your Islam is not real Islam.” It’s often just about power. It’s pointed out in the film that these guys were drunk in public, they were armed. According to a lot of people, they were just using this harsh Sharia law to control the population. So were they attacking music because they hated music, or were they attacking music because music was how people in Mali communicate with each other? We can’t speak for the jihadists, we can just speculate. But a lot of people in the film say this was kind of a ruse, a red herring kind of thing.
But I really want to drive home the point that this is a punk rock story that takes place in the middle of a warzone.
Like how the in the end, they don’t announce the location of the concert until right before it starts. Kinda like doing the same with a basement show to keep it off the cops’ radar.
Yup. I mean, music existed in the underground exclusively for a long time in Mali. We were filming in nightclubs where only a handful of people were brave enough to come out. But the music is phenomenal, and people will recognize it, because what we know as the blues came out of Mali. The musical world owes its heritage to Mali and the surrounding countries.
Here in the past when this interview is taking place, Super Tuesday just happened, so it’s tentatively looking like Donald Trump has a shot at becoming president. As a nation, how many collective bad decisions are we away from a similar scenario in which right-wing extremists ban all our music under threat of gruesome retribution?
Y’know, who is to say? I’ve been around the world for the last year, and the whole world is watching this election. But I think the important thing to realize is that this conflict in Mali is not that far away from us. The people in this film, they thought this could never happen to them, just like we do. They said to me, “We can’t believe this conflict is happening in Mali. We can’t believe music has been banned in our country. We always saw this type of thing on television, but we never imagined this could happen to us.”