By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
Of the now countless crimes and atrocities committed by ISIS and other terror groups, an often discussed and forgotten aspect is the wanton destruction of culture and history. Religious sites and monuments across the Middle East have been destroyed, erasing priceless and irreplaceable cornerstones of global history. But there attacks on culture are not limited to those no longer around to defend.
“They Will Have To Kill Us First,” directed by Johanna Schwartz, documents the loss of such culture in Mali, which in 2012 saw it’s entire northern half occupied by Islamic Radicals. Enforcing the most extreme form of Sharia law ever seen, music has been completely outlawed, forcing countless musicians to flee and take refuge in the southern regions of Mali, as a the Mali government, foreign powers, and various groups continue to try to keep the country from falling completely into enemy hands, while the people try to keep their culture from being destroyed.
The documentary makes sure that second part is the focus. Everything that is discussed is framed in the context of the people of Mali, and the musicians who now see their work as one of the few means of combating the growing danger. The film does a wonderful job laying out the various sides and history (through song, naturally) and showing how the people have been affect by all sides. With their government taking more and more violent steps to combat the rebels, and France’s slow intervention, it becomes clear that the interviewees have no one on their side.
Focusing on individuals, the film hinges on the their stories as innately compelling, which all of them thankfully are. Following the various refugee musicians through their journey paints the war on a clearly, more human light than we’ve been afforded to see before. Watching bands form and travel abroad, those who had to leave their families behind, those who form concerts for their fellow refugees. Each story paints a fresh but familiar picture, as an entire country’s generation faces the same peril. They have a common thread through their music, which for them, is the only thing that keeps their country from completely disappearing. The final scene finds a group of women forming the first concert in the occupied area, in a slowly built and well-earned act of defiance. While it spreads itself a bit thin, each story is compelling, heartbreaking, and reminds one of the costs of these conflicts.
In the various discussions and debates surrounding these conflicts, we tend to frame them in how they affect us or what we need to do. This tends to be reductive toward the men and women who live there and their stories. “They Will Have to Kill Us First” is a beautifully shot film that brings the focus back to the people who are just trying to survive, and what they fight for. It reminds us that if we let our culture die, our homes are truly lost. While the people of Mali have had their country taken over, they, like so many, refuse to let this war destroy their home. It’s nice to have a film that captures that story.