Every film festival or so, a film comes along that presents its story and intent with pomp, galore and an audacity that still manages to be subdued in its call for introspection. MALI BLUES written and directed by German director Lutz Gregor is such a film.
Most documentaries struggle with transition, pacing, cinematography, continuity, and relatability, important qualities that make a good picture really, but MALI BLUES rarely struggles and when it does, it does so in a forgivable manner. Its languid unhurried pace should not be mistaken for a lack of direction and neither should its lack of screen time to actual antagonistic, gun-toting militia be blamed on a lack of courage. Their presence is subtly visible in the hushed tones of people conversing about music, hidden places where it is still played and thoroughly enjoyed, and in the nostalgic crooning of the featured musicians in their unreserved element.
MALI BLUES glides from picture-perfect frame to frame with a surgical precision that enhances rather than dulls from the earthy tones of dusty, desert Kidal, all the way to sun-kissed capital Bamako. This precision succeeds in executing its intentions while avoiding the pitfalls of an overly strict aim for dull, unfeeling, cold perfection.
As a result of this almost flawless delivery, from the opening scenes to the credits, one has to be constantly reminded that this is indeed a documentary and not a high-budget movie. This is especially because of its ‚Äėhard-to believe-this-isn't-scripted' yet relatable, beautiful dialogue capable of strumming the heart strings to euphoric, emotional excess.
This recurring need to remember will come nudging scene after scene and should not be quickly dismissed in favour of non-fictional fantasy, as despite the undeniable beauty of MALI BLUES, the conditions behind its message is less than so. This very quickly reveals itself as Malian music is the main purpose of this film: its prohibition, its necessity despite and in spite of this unwarranted ban and in the pure nature of rhythmic meaningful sound, advices viewers to follow and revel in it in body and soul as much as the four featured artists do.
MALI BLUES follows award-winning musician and actress Fatoumata Diawara (whom most would remember from the 2014 Oscar-winning movie TIMBUKTU) on her return to Mali for her first live concert in a country now under the oppressive doctrine of Sharia law. It also features appearances by talented activist-rapper Master Soumy, Tuareg militant turned musician Ahmed Ag Kaedo and ngoni virtouso Bass√©kou Kouyat√©. This film documents and presents their complete love of their individual sounds in a manner so organic and inspiring it almost convinces one to jump out of their seats with fists in the air to demand an uplifting of the ban that extremist Jihadis have placed not only on music, but also on the humane way of living, of being.
Fatoumata is spell-binding in every scene - whether she is calmly yet passionately espousing poetic rhetoric on the merits of music or cleverly reaching out through the use of it to tearfully beg her village's elderly women still practicing the maiming rite of female genital mutilation. She appeals to them to really think about the worth of the act, which they claim is in the name of tradition.
Her peaceful spirit is felt even when quietly brewing a pot of tea. She brings a warmth, strength and pride to her art and life that is parallel to the other musicians and evident in the unreserved enjoyment by the Malian and international audience she performs for.
Director Lutz Gregor and his team outdo themselves in this documentary film with their collectively precise, unwavering eye for detail, fantastic cinematography, always intimate framing, editing and delivery in every scene that can easily stand alone as a still image capable of fully capturing the beauty of Mali, its people and its culture.
The use of original often freestyle music of the artists featured is an obvious choice as it further enhances the originality and uniqueness of this film. MALI BLUES doesn't try too hard to draw in and captivate viewers, it makes use of its authenticity, poetically strong story-telling, and underlying urgency to gently serenade and challenge viewers to question the effects of extremism on their society, be it Malian or otherwise. What better way to do this than through the soul-full, unpretentious singing of Ahmed Ag; the pride in every amplified strum of Bassekou's ngoni, and the disruptive, powerful rap flow of determined Master Soumy?
The passion, pride and belief in this production, is evident and felt intensely throughout this film that took five years to make. Although it closes on a victorious note in the form of a successful live concert, there is the unshakable, unsettling feeling that things are far from resolved.
Viewers can however take comfort in the knowledge that the people of Mali will not be so easily subdued and separated from the way of life that makes them so uniquely Malian, Sharia laws or not. MALI BLUES presents itself unabashedly, a love letter to not only the people of Mali but Africa itself, a resounding imploration to remember the music and roots that keep the continent flourishing, growing deeper and stronger especially in the often violent face of adversity.
By Agnes Atsuah
First published in iREP 2017 Newsletter - Issue 2, edited by Derin Ajao, with support of iRep FilmFest and Goethe-Institut Nigeria. Courtesy iREP.