After the armed conflict in northern Mali in 2012, which led to Jihadists taking control of the province, music was banned from radio stations and the streets. Johanna Schwartz’s documentary follows musicians Disco, Songhoy Blues, Moussa and Khiara as they leave the place they call their home, in order to nurture their love of music and performing.
For us in the West, it is hard to imagine a world without music, but this is exactly what happened when Shari’a Law was imposed on Northern Mali. They Will Have to Kill Us First follows musicians from around the country as they come to terms with this loss in their lives. Most are defiant, some lament, but all are determined to keep on playing.
The characters profiled in the film are, for the most part, charismatic and strong; Disco – whose real name is Fadimata Walet Oumar – is a strong, forthright and outspoken woman, who makes it clear that while she has left the area of conflict, she will not be happy until she goes home. The same goes for Khaira, who wants to put on a show in her native Timbuktu. Moussa is a less charming figure; he left his wife in the battle-torn Goa and she was imprisoned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he says he doesn’t see anything inherently wrong with Shari’a Law, other than the fact it does not allow him to play music. The band ”Songhoy Blues’ are intelligent, talented men whose journey in the film takes them from the recording studio to London, and back again.
Director Johanna Schwartz has chosen strong, educated and charming people as the subject of her documentary and, while a certain level of political discussion is needed to give the film context and a reason for existing, They Will Have to Kill Us First never truly gets bogged down in the political whys and wherefores of the conflict. The focus, instead, is on the people who have lived through the violence. The first half of the film is strong; allowing the audience to get to know the people featured, and their personal and often heartbreaking stories. The second half of the film is more fractured; with ‘Songhoy Blues’ heading off on tour, the film becomes divided between Africa and England, meaning the pacing drops and the impact of these highly personal and moving stories is lost. Thank goodness there’s a happy ending in sight though!
In all, They Will Have to Kill Us First is a film about music in Mali, but also one about the resilience of the human spirit. The first half of the film is definitely stronger, with the impact of the story being lost as it movies across the globe, but nonetheless, They Will Have to Kill Us First is powerful examination of human resilience. Oh, there are also some pretty great songs in there too.