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Non-Review Review: Mali Blues

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

Mali Blues is a joyous ode to the communal power of music, an affectionate to the social value of art.

Mali Blues follows a collection of musicians in the eponymous African country. Along with many other African countries, Mali is considered by many to have been a starting point for contemporary blues music, the music taken from the continent that would inspire a North American art form. Given that rich cultural history and important artistic heritage, it is no small irony that music finds itself under attack in Mali. The various performers and entertainers featured in Mali Blues are linked by a common thread, all forced south by radical Islamic extremists in the north.

Up on the roof's the only place I know...

Up on the roof’s the only place I know…

Director Lutz Gregor follows a collection of musicians trying to deal with the country’s political and social issues through their music. However, there is more to it than this. Fatoumata Diawara, Bassekou Kouyate and Master Soumy do not just hope to use their music to comment upon the current situation, instead believing that their compositions and engagement might actually bring about positive change within their communities. There is something profoundly optimistic in the way that these artists look at the world.

Mali Blues invests itself completely in that idea, believing wholeheartedly in the idea that music can serve as more than just entertainment. In contrast to the radical attempts to ban music in the African country, Mali Blues insists that a vibrant musical community is essential nourishment for a nation’s soul.

Fatoumata played guitar.

Fatoumata played guitar.

Mali Blues looks and sounds beautiful. Appropriately enough, Gregor heavily samples the featured artists to provide the soundtrack for his documenting of their journeys. This provides a rich texture for these stories, a sense of who these people are beyond their talking head interviews and their statements. Repeatedly, Gregor plays snippets and cuts over wonderful panning shots of the surrounding countryside; the roads in these small communities, the banks of the Niger River. Mali Blues beautifully captures a sense of place.

Mali Blues embraces its surroundings. In those moments when the musicians perform, Gregor makes a point to provide a sense of their surroundings and environment. This is most obvious in the concert sequences, which are frequently shot from the stage looking at the audience (rather than from the audience looking at the stage), but plays out even in smaller moments as the artists rehearse in small common areas. Playing on a roof patio, the evening skyline provides a soothing backdrop to Fatoumata Diawara’s music.

Sing!

Sing!

This sense of place bleeds out in other ways as well. The film repeatedly suggests music as a jumping off point into more overtly political discussions between audience and artist. Fatoumata plays a song about female genital mutilation that leads to a broad and wide-ranging debate with local women. Soumy’s demands that the radical clerics “explain [their] Islam” is juxtaposed with a smaller interaction with locals who reject the more fundamentalist and radical strands of the religion. Bassekou even brokers an interview with a local religious leader on the subject.

There is an endearing optimism to all of this, captured repeatedly in the interviews and in the presentation. Mali Blues is a film that suggests that music is a powerful tool that serves to enrich lives, both of those performing and of those listening. Although Mali Blues is most overtly about these composers and singers, there is a much broader point being made about the transformative power of art as something that makes an important political statement by virtue of simply existing. It is a timely argument, arguably with a resonance beyond the borders of Mali.

Play it again.

Play it again.

More than that, Mali Blues is a heartwarming meditation upon the human condition, with its subjects repeatedly stressing the importance of basic communication in building a functional and cohesive society. Even amid the horrific oppression of radical fundamentalism, the featured players in Mali Blues believe that the world might be a better place if people are allowed to express themselves and to listen to others expressing themselves. There is something curiously appealing about this idea, particularly at this moment in time.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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