By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
At last year’s Golden Globes, I got to watch Lady Gaga talk about “suffering for her art” for about 3 minutes, and end with thanking her personal assistants, without which her American Horror Story performance wouldn’t be possible. Just wait and see how fast she goes back being Stefani Germanotta if somebody told her they would hack her to death in public if she sang. For northern Malian musicians, however, this is their daily worry, but forced to choose between fear and the music that sustains them, many say “They Will Have to Kill Us First“.
Director Johanna Schwartz certainly found a fascinating subject, and no shortage of fascinating interviewees. These are some of the bravest people you’ll see, who show that bravery and perseverance in many different ways- from the old Queen of Malian soul Khaira Darby who won’t give up on her hometown of Timbuktu, to Taureg guitarist Moussa Sidi who must choose between his people (the current strife began as a Taureg separatist movement… until they made a deal with the literal devil, al Qaeda) and his guitar, to Fadimata Walet Oumar, married to the separatist leader whose connections to Jihadists arguably took their nation down this path but still proudly singing and helping refugees despite his wishes, to the Songhoy Blues, a band made of refugees and on the cusp of something big.
Damian Albarn’s big, right?
Perhaps even more interesting than the main line of musicians standing up to repression is the film’s feminist undercurrent, as women who just aren’t taking this shit anymore confuse their husbands who are used to more demure companions. It turns out when you’ve been in an al Qaeda prison camp and lived to tell the tale while your husband waits in safety thousands of miles of way, or if your power-hungry idiot husband signs on to Shari’a bullshit to further his agenda, making your livelihood illegal in the process, you start to say what the hell you want to say. These women are the future of their country, leaving their husbands behind in centuries-worth of dust.
Finally, I have to make mention of Schwartz’s filmmaking chops. Karelle Walker’s cinematography is gorgeous, especially her immaculate sunset-lit scenes, and excellent instincts for when to go handheld. Whoever’s idea it was to open on the old tube television playing a 90s MTV music video-inspired exposition and context-delivering rap absolutely nailed it, and when they go to it again later in the film it was absolutely perfect. Finally, while it certainly takes its time, the film eventually does feel like it’s building to something structure-wise, with an ending concert that is a huge cathartic release. Oh, and the music is simply great, of course.
The film feels a bit meandering in its coverage, and perhaps more stitched together than your average highly technically polished documentary. Most disappointingly, and perhaps most surprisingly, it doesn’t feel like there’s enough focus on the actual music. Not a song plays all the way through, and so, so many of them beg for more.
Don’t worry, you’ll be hooked on this for hours afterwards.
They Will Have to Kill Us First is shows both the unconscionable oppression of living under Sharia Law and the incredible bravery and art of those Malian musicians who, under the threat of death, play on.
They Will Have to Kill Us First (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for newscast overdub
Take a Drink: for songs you want to rewind and listen to again
Take a Drink: for incredible acts of courage
Do a Shot: whenever you feel you need to turn away from the screen