One of the best recently released music documentaries — The Last Song Before The War — wasn't originally supposed to be about music.
American filmmaker Kiley Kraskouskas was living in Germany in the fall of 2010. "I'd previously been doing graduate work in sociology at New York University, but had fallen in love with film," Kraskouskas says. She and some friends wanted to find a story line in Africa they could build a film around — something about tourism, something created by locals and something sustainable. A success story.
She received a call from one of her former students at NYU, a woman named Andrea Papitto, who had years of experience working in development in Africa. "Andrea told me about this amazing-sounding music festival in the Sahara Desert that had been created by local Tuaregs as a way of encouraging peace, tourism and economic development," Kraskouskas says. "Musicians from all different ethnic backgrounds across Mali came to play, and so did famous international musicians, including people like Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin. Tourists were coming from all over Europe and North America to Mali, just for this one event. And we said, 'This is it.'"
So with Kraskouskas as director and producer, Papitto as another producer, and their friend, editor/producer Leola Calzolai-Stewart, who had lived in Mali's capital city of Bamako and who also had a background in both international relations and film, the three quickly got into gear. The 2011 edition of the Festival in the Desert would be held in January — just weeks after they'd hit upon the event as their subject. (Over at our NPR sister blog Goats And Soda, writer Aaron Cohen tells us more.)
They raised $20,000 on Kickstarter, pooled together some other funds and sponsorships, and got on a plane to Mali. They connected with a local adviser, a Tuareg man named Abou Ansar — an international relations and development specialist himself, and a relative of the festival's founder, Manny Ansar — and began shooting.
The festival, which had been founded in 2001, had become a point of international pilgrimage for intrepid music lovers. There had been a previous documentary film made by Afropop Worldwide's Sean Barlow and Banning Eyre of the festival's arguably most iconic year — 2003 — attended by several dozen Europeans and Americans (including this writer). Every year since, the festival attracted an increasing number of international guests. By 2011, there were about 600 who made the trek from countries far away, including U2's Bono.
Over the three days of the 2011 festival, Kraskouskas and her team captured wonderful footage of performers like Saharan rock heroes Tinariwen, blazing guitarist Vieux Farka Touré (son of the legendary Ali Farka Touré), the irrepressible vocalist Khaïra Arby and the hypnotizing ensemble Tartit. But the production team also unwittingly created an elegy for a particular moment in time. Mali, the entire nation, was at peace, and its northern reaches in the Sahara hosted a feast of music and camaraderie, a tableau of cultural riches and overflowing goodwill in one of the world's materially poorest countries.
"I didn't really know much about the music before arriving," Kraskouskas says. "But how could I not fall in love with it? It's amazing!"
Yet mere weeks after the festival's 2011 edition ended, the vision that Kraskouskas and her colleagues captured was abruptly shattered. What started as a joyous documentary tribute became shaded with sadness — and they named their film The Last Song Before The War.
A complex array of Tuareg separatists and Islamist militants seized control of the country's north, throwing the entire nation into chaos. The Islamists imposed their vision of sharia law on the areas they controlled. Music was banned outright, with horrific consequences for those who dared flout the new rules. (As journalist and former Tinariwen manager Andy Morgan notes in a must-read 2012 piece published in London's Guardian, one of those Islamist chiefs, Ansar Dine strongman Iyad Ag Ghaly, used to hang out with Tinariwen and write his own love poetry.)
Kraskouskas says that her team was faced with nearly impossible decisions. "We had to figure out how — or if we even could — describe the narrative of what was going on politically," she says. Eventually, they hit upon creating an epilogue to their own footage, in a series of news clips sketching the outlines of the country's disastrous descent, from which it has still not totally emerged.
A peace treaty was signed Feb. 20 between the national government in Bamako and six armed groups based in the north of Mali. However, as the BBC notes, none of those groups are putting down their weapons — and the Festival in the Desert still remains a project "in exile," touring as the Caravan of Peace.
In the meantime, Kraskouskas' film stands as joyous, if wistful, evidence of something truly wonderful that once existed amid the Saharan dunes. It has now been screened around the globe, at venues that range from New York's Lincoln Center to film festivals from Warsaw to Zanzibar.
"The Festival in the Desert was such an incredible experience, filled with such joy, for all of us," Kraskouskas says. "I only hope that it will be able to come back, so that other people can share in that feeling."