Music Is Life, Life Is Music

in 9th Documentarist - Istanbul Documentary Days

by Kaj Van Zoelen

“It’s not life without music,” Malian singer Khaira Arby remarks in They Will Have To Kill Us First, Johanna Schwartz’s feature length documentary with the subtitle Malian Music in Exile. Arby, the “Nightingale of the North” (famous in all of Mali) is one these musicians living in exile. They have fled from their homes in Northern Mali, occupied since 2012 by the Islamist rebel group Ansar Dine, who have outlawed music in that area of Mali. To Arby, there is almost no greater affront. It is her dream to once again sing and perform freely in her home city of Timbuktu and to organize the first public concert there since the start of the conflict in Mali.

Such displacement of people, who long for their home while living in exile elsewhere is an all too common occurrence in today’s world. This was reflected in many films at the 9th edition of Documentarist, the Istanbul Documentary Days, a festival that itself almost wasn’t able to take place in its own home city. It is a displacement that causes sorrow, desperation and homesickness. But several films at the festival also proclaim that where there is music, there is life. This is the ethos of They Will Have To Kill Us First, which Schwartz demonstrates through the experience and thoughts of the people she follows and interviews. While at the same time not shying away from the harsher sides of the civil war and sharia law, including graphic news footage of an arm being cut off as punishment for playing music.

From the aforementioned Arby to Touareg guitar player Moussa Sidi, renowned singer Disco and new band Songhoy Blues, all keep hope alive for a reunited and peaceful Mali through their music. Sidi originally complied with the strict sharia rules imposed by Ansar Dine, until fighting got so heavy he had to escape his home in Gao. While his family and wife still live there, his only solace in exile is his music. Disco uses her musical talents as a tool to educate women and lift their spirits in the refugee camp in Burkina Faso where she resides. Songhoy Blues is a band that only exists because of the civil war. Its four members hail from four different parts of Mali and found each other in exile in Bamako, where they started playing together. Their music makes them unexpected stars, taking them to the Royal Albert Hall in London and a record deal with a subsidiary of Atlantic Records.

They Will Have To Kill Us First is at its strongest when simply showing these musicians creating their music, making palpable the power of musical expression. Not only can music provide solace in times of extreme turmoil, in better times it can also be life-affirming. When a peace accord is signed between the Malian government and several rebel groups, Khaira Arby’s Timbuktu concert dream becomes a reality. For this she also recruits Disco (among many other Malian musicians). Despite building up to this concert in the latter part of They Will Have To Kill Us First, when it actually happens much of the concert footage is accompanied by a standard score by Nick Zinner – instead of the Malian music being heard. Here Schwartz hits her one sour note, which robs the climax of her film of part of its power. A strange decision, that is hard to understand given how successfully They Will Have To Kill Us First shows music as a life force integral to Malian culture in many earlier scenes.

If life is music in They Will Have To Kill Us First, music is life in Bálint Szimler’s Balaton Method. This experimental documentary consists of 18 music videos of Hungarian bands, each filmed in one long take with the music recorded live, in and around Lake Balaton. Although the musical styles vary wildly, from traditional folk to modern hip hop, all scenes share not only said general location but also a sense of life unfolding as the bands play. This is partly achieved by the live recording of the music and partly by the way the camera often starts by filming a detail or face in close-up, only to reveal that there is much more going on in the video.

Often it is revealed that the music heard is not made with traditional instruments but with whatever life provides at the particular location where the video was shot. Many times the acoustics provided by nature, or man-made buildings, are incorporated into the music. In one of the highlights, the camera zooms out to show that the percussion of the song is created by dozens of people slamming car doors (as well as using other car parts to make sounds) on a ferry moving across the lake. Any and all parts of life around us can be musical, and thus all of life becomes music. That Balaton Method outstays its welcome and goes on too long for its own good, does not diminish this concept.

Despite being radically different documentaries in style, content and situation, both They Will Have To Kill Us First and Balaton Method celebrate music as an essential element of life, and show at the same time how the life lived by those that make music is integral to the music created, whether in terms of lyrical content or the sounds that make up the music. From one of Hungary’s most popular tourist destinations to war-torn Mali, music makes life worth living and defines it.

Edited by Carmen Gray