There are, I suppose, two intertwined stories in this documentary, subtitled “Malian Music in Exile”. One is an affirmative and upbeat story of the creativity and energy of Mali’s musicians, working across a range of styles (whether traditional, rock or even rap). The other is the precarious political situation in the West African republic, where the northern part of the country has long been contested by native Touareg peoples and whose leadership has in recent years been the subject of various takeover attempts by insurgent al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist forces, one of whose edicts included the banning of all music. This background is dispatched fairly quickly by a rapper who opens the documentary, though a sense of the region’s conflicts returns periodically, sometimes as an aside to the musicians’ stories, and sometimes taking centre stage. The key figure in this regard is ‘Disco’, an outspoken critic of the Islamist policies and rule, who is married to a senior figure within the Touareg political community, himself a former Army commander within the Malian government. Disco and her compatriot Khaira Arby have been displaced by the fighting but are keen to return to their native town of Timbuktu as soon as the way is clear for them to make music there. In tandem with this narrative are two other stories of musicians who have had to leave the north of the country. Moussa is another Touareg musician, whose wife still lives in the north, meaning he is torn between staying in exile in Ouagadougou (in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire) and returning home, despite the distinct threat of violence which forced him out — primarily that, as neither an Islamist nor a Touareg rebel, he is caught between the two sides and in danger from both. Meanwhile, the members of Songhoy Blues (from a different community of northern Malian people) seem to have found a more settled existence in Bamako, to the south of Mali, and even a degree of international fame thanks to Western projects that have brought them to recording studios and concerts in London. All these strands are kept expertly in play by documentarian Johanna Schwartz, without losing sight of the wider political dimensions of their situation. In the end it’s a broadly life-affirming story about the power of music to bring communities together, in which the lurking political dangers are fairly downplayed (although there is some rather graphic footage of dismembering near the outset, to give a sense of the insurrectionary forces and their mangling of Islamic principles), and a more rounded sense of what it means to be a refugee from their point of view (rather than the rather more hostile one of the countries where they end up, as is more commonly portrayed by the media).
Director Johanna Schwartz; Cinematographer Karelle Walker; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Saturday 24 October 2015.