The best part of any film festival is stumbling across a discovery, finding a fresh directorial voice or subject matter that has escaped the 24-hour news cycle. It can be difficult at a sprawling festival like South by Southwest, where the big names — the new Melissa McCarthy (Spy), the new Kevin Hart (Get Hard), the new Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina) and a surprise sneak of the new Fast & Furious movie — sometimes suck up a lot of the conversational oxygen.
But Johanna Schwartz’s haunting and gorgeously shot They Will Have to Kill Us First, a documentary that made its premiere Sunday and Monday at SXSW documenting what happened to the musicians in the African nation of Mali when jihadis banned all music in the northern part of the country, is the kind of movie that makes the crowds and insanity of SXSW worthwhile.
In 2012, the musicians were caught in a fight among the Malian government, the Tuareg tribes wanting independence, and Islamic hard-liners. For a time, the jihadis won in certain regions and cities like Gao, and fabled Timbuktu fell under Sharia, or Islamic law. Some musicians fled to the capital, Bamako, in Mali’s south or across the border to Burkina Faso.
In exile, they kept the spirit of Malian music — a distinctive, guitar-driven blend of blues, hypnotic rhythms and a call-across-the-desert sense of longing — very much alive. All the while, the separation anxiety weighed on their marriages and families.
The stories are heartbreaking but the music energizing. The band Songhoy Blues, which has gotten Western exposure thanks to interest from Brian Eno, Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner and had several dates in Austin this week as part of SXSW, is the most accessible with what the musicians call their “desert blues-punk.”
But the dreamier styles of female singers Khaira and Disco, both of whom organized a free show in Timbuktu after the jihadis were driven from the city (with the help of French forces), and male singer Moussa, whose wife was imprisoned by the jihadis, are equally transporting.
They Will Have to Kill Us First doesn’t yet have an American distributor. Considering how fantastic a music documentary it is — and how phenomenal the soundtrack — it’s unimaginable that this situation won’t be rectified soon.
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571