Filmed partly in refugee camps and on the war-ravaged streets of Timbuktu and Gao, Johanna Schwartz’s miraculously hopeful documentary, “They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile,” delivers a vibrant testimony of resilience under oppression.
When, in 2012, Islamic jihadists imposed an extreme version of Shariah law on northern Mali, banning all music and destroying radio stations, many of that country’s most prominent musicians were forced to hide or flee. In a nation where music is a vital tool for education, enlightenment and connection — in the words of one artist, songs are “like the press” — the ban felt especially devastating. Defying it, however, meant risking torture or worse.
Following a handful of exiled, homesick musicians as they try to play the pain away, Ms. Schwartz blends their often joyful performances with candid interviews that show the damage wrought by extended conflict. (The ban officially ended in 2014, but musicians still fear reprisals from extremists.) Blues and ballads, rap and soul fill the soundtrack (as well as an original score by Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), while Karelle Walker’s camera searches faces for every emotional clue.
Two of those faces are particularly memorable. The so-called Nightingale of the North, Khaira Arby, allays her sadness by planning a return concert in her beloved Timbuktu. Meanwhile, her fellow songstress, Fadimata Walett Oumar, deals with displacement by helping women in refugee camps and pondering her country’s political complexities. To the uninitiated, these are not always clear; but the movie’s insistence on the healing power of cadence and beat needs no explanation.
A picture caption with an earlier version of this review transposed the names of two Malian singers. Khaira Arby is on the left; Fadimata Walett Oumar is on the right.