They Will Have to Kill Us First


Songhoy Blues has the blues.

Songhoy Blues has the blues.

(2015) Documentary (BBC Films) Fadimata “Disco” Walett Oumar, Moussa Agbidi, Khaira Arby, Songhoy Blues, Jimmy Oumar, Nick Zinner, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, Marc-Antoine Moreau. Directed by Johanna Schwartz

Mali is a West African nation that most Americans probably have never heard of, let alone pick it out from a map. It has been beset by a civil war initiated in 2012 by the MNLA, or the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a group ostensibly fighting for the ethnic Tuareg minority to create their own state in the Saharan northern portion of the country. In order to further their own ends, they made a deal with the devil – fighting along with jihadist separatists who were determined to institute Sharia law and a religious totalitarian government. You can guess which group got their way.

The broadcast of music was thus forbidden in the territories that the jihadists, some of whom were linked to ISIS, controlled. For the people of Mali, who had developed their unique style of music that included hip-hop, rock and roll, folk styles and to a very large extent the blues, this was tantamount to surgically removing their souls. Music was part of the national identity of the country.

All of this was told in a clever rap song at the beginning of the film which immediately links the importance of music and the story of this country’s misery. Harsh punishments were instituted in the jihadist territories, with a graphic video depicting a man’s hand being amputated. Rape became common in the area and infractions such as not praying loud enough triggered brutal reprisals.

Two of Mali’s biggest musical stars are women; both of whom are best known by a single name. Disco (a nickname bestowed on the Madonna-loving artist as a youth) is a more modern artist and Khaira more traditional but both have huge audiences. Both, like millions of Malians, have been displaced from their homes – one to a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, one to the capital city of Bamako in the South, away from her beloved home of Timbuktu. Guitarist Moussa Agbidi from Gao is also in a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, but his wife remained in the city of Gao where she was arrested. He was trying to eke by playing at what venues he could find work at or whatever occasions (weddings, parties) that required musicians.

Also in Bamako, a group of young musicians calling themselves Songhoy Blues were writing some wonderful songs, one of which plaintively called the displaced back to Mali to help rebuild the country. Ironically, they themselves would end up leaving after being discovered by a French producer and English musicians Damon Albarn of Blur and noted minimalist Brian Eno as well as American guitarist Nick Zimmer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They moved to London to record a critically acclaimed album and went on tour to support it.

The stories here are raw and wrenching. The ability of man to be completely and utterly inhumane to his fellow man is going to make you shake your head in sorrow at the very least. There are moments that are hard to watch as we’re shown news footage of bodies and body parts strewn about the rubble of a small town that has felt the brunt of the war between the government, the insurgents of the MNLA and the jihadists.

But then there’s the music and oh my goodness, it’s incredible. I expected African music that was more rural and rhythmic with chanting and gorgeous harmonies but this is very close to what I would consider Indie Rock. The musicianship is incomparable and the songs plaintive and longing. The lyrics are thoughtfully translated through subtitles – much of the dialogue is in French which is what the Malians mostly speak. It’s not often I urge readers to buy a soundtrack to a documentary, but this one is worth it; it’s on Atlantic Records and should be available through most vendors who sell music either digitally or in the rarest of the rare, CD stores.

The film ends with a concert in Timbuktu organized by Keira and Disco. We don’t really get a sense of being there, although it IS beautifully photographed. The ending should be uplifting, cathartic or depressing but here it’s only kinda meh. It left me feeling that I was missing a few minutes of ending. The narrative does tend to meander a little bit as we bounce from subject to subject but then again that is true of most documentaries.

Still, the movie is plenty powerful throughout, the ending notwithstanding. Most of us here in the west know little or nothing about Mali’s suffering. We get an inside glimpse at it, the frustration of those caught in between warring factions who just want to live their lives in peace. Most of these people are Muslim and they despise the jihadists who have so disrupted their lives. One of the best sequences in the film shows a group of men and women in full dress dancing enthusiastically. One look at that and that might change some minds about the people who follow that religion. This is a movie full of vitality and joy – and also frustration and despair. The human condition in 90 minutes.

REASONS TO GO: The music is amazing. The stories are heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The narrative is disjointed and meandering occasionally.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some gruesome images of civil war, a little bit of profanity and some of the themes here are pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Schwartz’s first cinematic feature film (she previously directed a made-for-TV documentary Mysterious Science: Rebuilding Stonehenge).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timbuktu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: 45 Years

Tomorrow We Disappear


Sometimes we all feel like puppets on a string.

Sometimes we all feel like puppets on a string.

(2014) Documentary (Old Friend) Puran Bhatt, Maya Pawar, Rahman Shah, Dilip Bhatt, Krishnan the Juggler. Directed by Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber

Florida Film Festival 2015

The slums of India tend to be among the worst in the world; poverty in India is as abject as perhaps anywhere else on the face of the planet. Children play on exposed electrical cords, the smell from fly-infested canals filled with standing algae growth and from excrement and filth in the streets can be horrific.

The Kathputli Colony in New Delhi is at first glance much like any other slum until you take a closer look. The inhabitants are mainly folk artists, street magicians and contortionists, all carrying on Indian street arts that are quickly disappearing. They have lived here for generations, passing down their art to their children and making a meager living performing in the streets of Delhi.

A developer has purchased the land that the slum sits on from the Indian government and proposes to build a multi-use skyscraper with high end apartments, a shopping mall, restaurants and entertainment. It will be New Delhi’s first skyscraper, something the entire city can be proud of.

However, to the residents of Kathputli, it is troubling. Part of the deal that the government of India made with the developer is that those being displaced by the project must have proper housing built. A temporary relocation camp has been constructed to house the residents while their final homes are being built.

Three residents of the colony take differing viewpoints about their displacement. Puran Bhatt is India’s premiere puppeteer, having toured the globe promoting the distinctly Indian version of this art and having won a National Award presented to him by India’s president no less. He is the most famous person living in Kathputli, and he is very troubled by what he sees as a direct threat to the colony, the traditions that live there and the unity of its residents. He fears that this will signal the end of these valuable and culturally defining art forms that are already becoming scarce on the Indian cultural landscape.

Rahman Shah is a street magician who is finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. Corrupt police officers expect bribes in order for him to perform and often the amount they ask for is more than he takes in during a performance. His sons worship him as young sons will worship their fathers, eager to follow in his footsteps and yet he is still pessimistic about the future of his art. He feels that it is being pushed out of the way by corruption and indifference and will eventually disappear from view entirely.

Maya Pawar is an acrobat who sees the change as something positive, an opportunity for the colony and its people to grow and flourish. She is concerned that the desperate poverty of the colony actually inhibits the creativity of those who live there, and better living conditions will allow them to devote more time to their arts. She doesn’t feel the same connection to her art that Puran and Rahman do; she’d be just as happy teaching school as she is performing acrobatic feats.

The residents band together for protest marches and while the developer tries to assuage their concerns, when they tour the temporary relocation camp it feels like their worst fears have come true; the dark and ugly flats, hastily built with shoddy workmanship, are not places to live so much as they are places to die and what was promised to be a transitional place to live for a year or two looks to be their homes for much longer than that and given the corruption that often exists in these matters may certainly end up as permanent dwellings if the developer reneges on his promises.

The first part of the documentary is actually quite powerful as we get to meet the colorful people of Kathputli and see the pride they take in their home and their art. As poor as their lives are, they decorate their little corner of the world with bright colors, electric light from rickety jury-rigged wiring, and a sense of humor that they maintain even in the worst pressures being brought to bear on them. There is a sense of change overwhelming the people of the Colony and most aren’t quite sure how to react or what to do. It is heartbreaking in some ways and in others an interesting study of a traditional lifestyle being decimated by the needs of modern life. Whether modernization is a good thing for the inhabitants of Kathputli is certainly open for debate.

The trouble is that in the second part of the documentary, things fall apart a little bit. We get a lot of shouting matches between colonists and developers, and amongst the Kathputli residents themselves. The sense of unity that the residents had is disintegrating which might account for the more chaotic feel of the second half. It feels though in some ways that the story has lost its momentum and we’re just watching things deteriorate which is an unsettling feeling for the viewer; it might well be what the filmmakers were going for in order to give the audience a sense of what the people of Kathputli are going through, but it left me feeling like the movie just lost its momentum.

The story is ongoing and the people of Kathputli continue to fight relocation; late last year police raided the colony, beating colonists in an attempt to intimidate the hold-outs to move into the relocation camp (these events took place after filming of the documentary had been completed and aren’t referred to by the filmmakers). The story remains in a bit of flux, which often real life stories tend to be. This isn’t something that will be settled quickly which you get a sense of from watching the film, although you don’t really see beyond the developer’s promises just how much the government is arrayed against the colonists. I would have liked to have gotten a better sense of that.

The first part of the movie does tend to trump the second; the people are so extraordinary, so indelible that you won’t soon forget them. Whether or not you agree with their stance regarding the relocation of the colony (and I tend to be skeptical that the developer and the government will keep their promises), i think you will agree that should these artists and their art disappear from view it will be a terrible blow for India and their cultural heritage.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Residents of slum are interesting people you want to get to know better.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses steam during the second half. We get very little sense of the forces arrayed against them or the corruption surrounding them.
FAMILY VALUES: A few mild bad words.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival a year ago.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hamara Shahar
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Proud Citizen