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Spot on Directors: Johanna Schwartz


Director Johanna Schwartz was planning to attend the 2013 “Festival au Désert” music festival in Mali when she learned about the controversial music ban imposed in the north of the country under the newly instated Sharia law. Having spent more than a decade documenting life and culture on the African continent, she felt compelled to travel to Mali nonetheless, and thus began her journey filming THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST: MALIAN MUSIC IN EXILE.

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

I have always been drawn to filmmaking in general as a way to tell stories. Film can engage so many people in so many unique ways. But I became specifically interested in Documentary during film school. At that time there was no such thing as a documentary feature film in the cinema, or short form documentary online. There was only broadcast. But even so, I found that the stories I was able to tell using documentary were far more powerful than the stories I could tell on the fictional side. I realised that I could create a bigger impact, that documentary had a kind of power that narrative film did not. It captivated me and I never looked back. The industry has changed so much in the past 20 years, but the power of documentary hasn’t diminished.

What is your history with documentary? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I spent a long time working to commission in British television, taking any job that came across my desk. Archaeology, History and Environmental issue films were my bread and butter. I had to work to live, and television provided me with many opportunities to do so. I was definitely drawn more to issue-based films, but with every passing year the call for these kinds of films shrunk and the competition to direct them grew. Even the commissions I did get were never entirely satisfying. I realized that if I wanted to make the kinds of films that really excited me, I would need to leave TV and enter the world of independent film. It was scary, but it paid off, and I have found my passion – stories where music and geopolitics collide. These are the stories that I am now pursuing full time.

How did you get to know the musicians in the film? Were there any other musicians that you wished you could feature but that there wasn’t time for?

We interviewed perhaps double the amount of musicians than we needed. Meeting them was not difficult at all. I enjoyed meeting all of them but felt very strongly that the musicians we featured within the film had to have a deeply personal connection to the conflict and had to move the plot along at every turn. Every character in the film is there for a reason, their story is laid out for our audiences for a reason. We wanted to tell all sides to the story, not just one. Not everyone in the film makes good decisions, not everyone is a “hero”. This was extremely important to me.

You artfully weave together the story of a delicate political situation and very upbeat joyful music. How does the film communicate how intrinsically music and human rights are intertwined?

I hope that the film communicates how the musicians feel themselves. I don’t wish to communicate what I feel, rather, what they feel. The musicians all speak of how vital music is in Malian society, and it was our job to find a way to make the audience feel that too. It’s not enough to just hear the words. Filmmaking is a language. And we used this language to convey so many complex emotions had by these incredible musicians.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around this film? Has it stirred up any strong opinions?

The film is about so many things. Earlier today I sat with a group of American university students and they went around in turn talking about their favourite moment in the film. I was so proud that they were taking different things away from it, and this has been my experience at every Q&A. For some, the story of Songhoy Blues’ rise to success and their perseverance and bravery is the most powerful aspect. For others, it is the moment where Moussa describes how tourists are afraid of him and think he might be a terrorist for wearing a head scarf, and how this opens up an understanding about Islam and extremism. For others, the story is about women and their immensely important role in the unfolding narrative. For others, this is a story about refugees… The film has many layers and is not about one thing or another, just like life.

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST?

Please visit our website and take action. You can buy a CD/digital download of one of the artists, or indeed the soundtrack to the film featuring all of them. You can recommend the film to a friend. You can buy Andy Morgan’s book “Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali” to learn more. You can donate to the Music In Exile Fund which helps persecuted musicians around the world. There are so many ways to become involved, but most importantly, talk about these issues with other people. Talk about musical freedom of expression, talk about extremism, talk about Mali. Lets keep this conversation alive and spreading.

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

I won’t list my favourites as that list is constantly changing (Werner Herzog is always on there somewhere), but if you like this film and want to continue on the musical theme, I would recommend Searching for Sugarman; Anvil! The story of Anvil; Súme: The sound of a revolution; The Punk Syndrome…there are so many great music documentaries (just google ‘best music docs of all time’) but I have to say I like the ones that show a side of the music industry, or of musicians themselves that is surprising, sometimes dark but always brilliant.

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THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST is Influence Film Club’s featured films for October 2016. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by Isis Graham