Johanna Schwartz is an award-winning, American-born, UK-based filmmaker. Working across the world — with a particular focus on Africa — she has produced and directed films for broadcasters such as the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, Discovery, National Geographic, The History Channel, PBS, CNBC, CNN and MTV, among others. As a director, she has won gold at the New York Film and Television Festival in addition to receiving numerous “picks of the day” in the British press. “They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian music in Exile” is her feature-length film debut as a director. (Press materials)
“They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile” will make its UK premiere at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival on October 13.
JS: In 2012, Islamic extremists banned music in northern Mali: radio stations [were] destroyed, instruments [were] burned and Mali’s world-famous musicians faced death. “They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile” tells the story of Mali’s musicians fighting for their right to sing. From the refugee camps to the battlefield and the international stage, it leaps headfirst into a tale of courage in the face of conflict.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
JS: I was on the bus heading home after work when I read about the music ban, and I remember feeling like my heart had fallen into my stomach. By coincidence, I had been planning a trip to Mali to attend the Festival in the Desert, a legendary three-day concert that takes place in the Sahara every year. Needless to say, the festival was cancelled. But I went to Mali anyway and just began filming. It was more instinct than a logical decision. I just knew this story had to be told.
I always look for personal, emotionally engaging stories that are able to shed light on issues of wider resonance. The spread of extremism in Africa had long been on my radar, but I couldn’t work out how to approach the subject matter. Music is universal, so I knew in an instant that the idea of banning music in a place where it is so vital could reach through the complexities of the issues and get people to pay attention.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
JS: Working in a war zone is a peculiar thing. And more often than not, in today’s wars, you have multiple groups all fighting in a kind of chaotic scrum. In Mali I mostly had to be aware of the numerous jihadist groups operating in the region. We had an awesome network of people on the ground (both formal and informal) who were fairly clued up as to who was where and when. It luckily allowed us to skirt the areas where there were kidnappings, flare-ups and suicide bombers (and these were moving around all the time).
It certainly required us to be fluid in our schedules. Sometimes we would turn up to film in Gao, only to be told when we arrived that there were rumors of an occupation and that we should film in Timbuktu instead. We were also advised never to linger in any city for too long. The finale of the film was shot in Timbuktu, but we needed to get in and out within a 48-hour window and had to have a UN bodyguard the entire time. These time limits put a lot of pressure on us to get everything shot quickly. If we missed the sunrise shot over the city on that first morning, well, that was tough luck. (Luckily, we got it). This kind of thing happened a lot.
During the first half of the shoot, I was pregnant with my second child. I filmed until I was eight months pregnant — my last shoot was out in a refugee camp over the border from Mali in Burkina Faso. Pregnancy posed other, entirely different, concerns. Luckily, I had a relatively easy pregnancy, but I was in constant fear of contracting malaria, which can be very dangerous for pregnant women. Once my daughter was born, there were other worries, including the pain of leaving her behind to finish the job. I returned to Mali to film for a few weeks every other month from the time she was born until she was over one year old. I will never forget traveling by 4×4 across the dusty, jagged roads in Mali, trying to express milk to keep my flow going so that I could carry on breastfeeding when I got home.
And once Ebola hit Mali, a new group of concerns were presented. But we got through it. I am very proud that we managed to make a film that doesn’t hint at the stress and challenges we faced out there. All you experience in the film are the characters and their stories. And that is how it should be.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
JS: I think this film will affect different people in different ways. For some, I would like them to have their opinions on Africa and African music completely challenged. This is not a typical “world music” film. It will open up a new and fantastic cultural experience for some people. For others, I would like them to think about refugees in a new light. Every single character in this film is a refugee, and they spend the entire time trying to get home, despite the fact that a war is raging through their country. I think this film can help to turn people’s ideas about refugees around completely. I also think there is a lot to be explored around the anti-Muslim prejudices we are seeing, especially in France and the USA. For those audiences, I would like them to think about the fact that every single character in this film is a Muslim, and not one of them is an extremist.
I think for people in Mali and the surrounding countries, the film explores the reality of living through a war. Sometimes you don’t always make the right decisions. Sometimes you back the wrong people because it seems like the safer option. I hope this film will help people work through their reactions to having music banned in their country and help them to see the other side.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
JS: There were three directors out in Mali following the story of the music ban. Two men and myself, a woman. But I am the only one of us who has released a film so far. I think this is because of my determination. I knew that, in order to be noticed, I had to be the first one across the finish line.
Even if you believe in what you are doing, the universe sometimes throws everything it can into your path to stop you. You have to prove that your will is stronger than that. Relentlessness is a powerful thing.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
JS: This is my debut feature film, so I can’t answer the question entirely. But I can say that I have always felt like there have been misconceptions about the kind of work I was capable of producing. As a woman, I was often passed over for the hard-hitting stuff, even though I knew I could tell those stories with real insight.
W&H: How did you get your film funded?
JS: This film was powered by willpower. It was paid for by a mixture of crowdfunding, a small development grant, three private investors and a barrel full of credit cards. We never knew from shoot to shoot whether the film could continue, but we refused to give up. The stories of these exceptionally brave musicians gave me strength to soldier on with a tricky production.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
JS: I admire all independent directors — male or female — for managing to get their films made in a tough industry. I particularly admire female documentarians who are telling tough stories in even tougher situations. “The Square,” directed by Jehane Noujaim, was released whilst we were still shooting the Mali film, and I didn’t get a chance to watch it until we had finished. But I was struck by some of the similarities of what we were both facing and trying to achieve. I think the film is exceptionally well told and a beautiful portrayal of a handful of people during a historic and chaotic moment in Egypt’s history. It uses personal stories to break down a hugely complex political situation, and when a documentary can do that successfully, it is — in my opinion — the moment when the documentary genre is at its most powerful. This is the kind of stunning film that the world needs a lot more of.