words Paul Risker
Art under siege is an enduring and troubling occurrence within human society and a subject that cinema has never been shy to confront. Madeleine Sackler’s Dangerous Acts released last year explored the subject of “The Last Dictator of Europe”, the deprivation of human rights and oppression that forces people into exile through a recounting of the story of the Belarus Free Theatre.
And while this year Johanna Schwartz’s provocatively titled documentary They Will Have To Kill Us First shifts the focus from the European to the African continent, it retains a focus on the artistic sphere and the Malian musicians living in the shadow of a ban of music in their native land.
Continuing the severe constraints encountered by art and artists alike in the twentieth century, the Malian music ban by Islamic extremists is a testament to the ongoing struggle for the unrestricted freedom of creative expression. From the harsh realities of Nazi and Soviet censorship, to Ray Bradbury’s seminal novel Fahrenheit 541 and the visceral images of the burning of books he conjured up through his prose, the oppression of art is a specter of not only reality, but is one that haunts art within its own creative realms.
Watching Schwartz’s documentary conjured up the memory of a favourite phrase of Latvian conductor Andris Nelson: “Music is food for our souls. We need to feed our soul. And through music, through art, you can do this.” Having heard him remark these words in introductions to and during concerts, the weight with which they should be regarded escaped me. Upon encountering Schwartz’s film it is difficult to not appreciate the privilege of art and creativity, with which comes the communal experience of music as well as the individual experience. Expression is an inherent part of our nature as people and not only do we like to absorb expressions of others on a spectatorial level, but we actively use them as a means to filter the expression(s) of our own personality and aesthetical tastes. And this is where They Will Have To Kill Me First touches a raw nerve – a ban which in the words of Nelsons is the ban of the “food for our souls.”
The effectiveness of Schwartz’s film is the way in which she captures how her individual subjects are defined by their musicality and yet avoids being wholly consumed by the ban. This oppressive act is a mini explosion whose flames illuminate wider concerns that ground the film in a broad and timely context. They Will Have To Kill Us First is a discussion of extremism and the manipulation of ideas. The stage is the contemporary world whose fight has been defined by western leaders as the fight against extremism. Schwarz effectively extrapolates the music ban into a story that accesses the wider social and international angst that define a generation to give her documentary a greater weight and whose discourse has a peripheral vision.
While They Will Have To Kill Us First is infused with an energy that serves to make a bold first impression, it possesses a modesty and the irony of its eventual conclusion captures the contradictions at the heart of the film. Fadimata ‘Disco’ Walet Oumar’s bold announcement in the final scenes: “You Will Have To Kill us First” captures the fevered passion that is offset by the creative pacifism of the musicians and musical artists. Therein the film’s title is tinged with irony – both a provocative rally cry and yet the observations captured throughout the film give it a more tempered and resilient resonance. However, that said the passion expressed radiates outward from the musicians who become larger than life, whether it is through their big personalities and loud voices or their subtle personalities and voices – the extroverted versus introverted artist archetypes put on display.
At a time when ancient and historical artifacts are being eradicated by ISIS, and the deprivation of the freedom of expression is geographically broad, the film strikes at an opportune moment to highlight the innate vulnerability of art and culture. We channel ourselves through art and art channels itself through us. It is an important symbiotic relationship and the true horror of They Will Have To Kill Us First is that it is real, but also that such actions are self-harming to our communal cultural identity and expression.
They Will Have To Kill Us First is out in cinemas from 23rd October. See www.theywillhavetokillusfirst.com for more information.
Review by Paul Risker