There’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through this film about music and war in the African nation of Mali when a band of young men called Songhoy Blues gets a chance to tour England, and the sense of happiness for them in the audience is palpable. It’s not just because it’s every musician’s dream to get to take their music to the world; in this case, the value is largely about being able to escape the harrowing realities of jihad violence that has gripped Mali in recent years.
And yet, much of the movie deals not with Malians trying to get out, but rather exiled natives trying to return. In addition to the members of Songhoy Blues, “They Will Have to Kill Us First” focuses on two women musicians named Khaira and Disco and a male guitarist named Moussa who fled to Burkina Faso when a sharia law crackdown led to a complete ban on music.
The social, political, military and religious threads are complicated and can be somewhat difficult to follow for the average American who hasn’t made an effort to focus on African issues in detail. But the film blossoms in its efforts to show how much music means to the Malian people, and how they might use it to heal wounds and overcome strife.
The insistent efforts of Khaira and Disco to return to their home of Timbuktu for a public concert eventually gives the film its inspiring payoff after extended documentation of their struggles including some scenes that are difficult but necessary to watch. A parallel track involving Moussa and his wife has a less definitive resolution, but he proves an intriguing character who helps flesh out the portrayal of Malians as a people.
It’s the story of Songhoy Blues’ rise, though, that ultimately is the most captivating. A beautifully filmed shot early in the movie in which they perform along a river silhouetted against the setting sun helps to visualize the magic of their music, which blossoms when artists such as Brian Eno and Blur’s Damon Albarn get involved in a cultural program to promote African performers.
Songhoy Blues’ story is still unfolding, indeed: All four members attended Sunday’s premiere at the Stateside Theater, and the band will play several shows this week as part of SXSW Music after recently completing a U.S. tour with red-hot soul-blues band Alabama Shakes. Their members come across as especially sharp and well-spoken during the film, and though they’re clearly happy to have made it out of Mali, the continuing hardships of their homeland still clearly weigh on them. One gets the sense that the larger arc of this film will still be playing out in real life for several years to come.
“They Will Have to Kill Us First” also screens at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at satellite film venue Marchesa, 6226 Middle Fiskville Road, and at 7 p.m. Friday at the Vimeo Theater in the Austin Convention Center.