Most of the time when you review things you maintain a certain level of detachment that allows you to keep your critical faculties intact. You take a step back from whatever it is and ask did they do this well or did that work within the context of what they were working on? However, there are occasions when all of that flies out the window, when whatever it is strikes such a chord it resonates so strongly that you can't help but get caught up in the material and all of sudden all those intellectual reasons, the whys and wherefores, just don't matter.
Like the other occasions when this has happened to me the piece I'm reviewing is a DVD of a documentary movie. I suppose it says something about how well a documentary has been made if it is able to elicit an emotional response instead of an intellectual one. Based on previous experiences watching documentaries I know that the subject matter of the film doesn't seem to make much of a difference to the way I react but how it was made. Far too many documentaries these days seem to be about the film makers and not about the people whose story they are supposedly telling.
There are only so many films you can see that purport to be about starving orphans in Africa, but in reality are about the good works now being done by the people who made the film, without becoming a tad cynical. It's easy to start to wonder about the work's integrity when its so obviously being used to solicit donations. There's lot's of competition out there these days, so you need some slick packaging if you want people to cough up money for your cause. Nothing helps convince them to part with their hard earned cash better than a moving documentary about plucky privileged people enduring the hardships of the developing world in order to save the people living there from themselves.
Desert Rebel: Ishumars, The Forgotten Rockers Of The Desert, a documentary about how French and Tuareg musicians came together to form the group Desert Rebel, and the history of the Tuareg peopleover the last forty years, was able to do what so many other documentaries have failed to do in recent years and make me care, because of the matter of fact manner way in which the material was presented. Part of the movie was spent following the musicians as the travelled across the Sahara desert in a small convoy of Toyota four wheeled vehicles and into recording studios both in Africa and France, and the rest of the movie was spent in recounting the history of the region through interviews, voice overs, and film footage from news reports.
In some ways it was this very clinical approach, with very few attempts at appeals to sentimentality, that made the story so compelling. One moment you are watching a man on stage playing his guitar and singing, and two minutes later the same man is recounting, in very matter of fact tones, the time he spent hiding in the mountains without food for eight days during the uprisings. Neither Abdallah Oumbadougou, the man in question, nor the film makers do anything more with this information than present it as facts. This is what I was doing then for my people, this is what I'm doing now (music). There is something about the starkness of that sentiment, said without adornment or affectation, that bridges the gap between you the viewer and the man saying the words.
While the movie might on occasion appear to be slightly disjointed, it jumps back and forth between history, interviews, and the caravan of travelling musicians, it actually makes it much more effective that way. For each piece of voiced over history that is supplied by the narration, you are then also supplied with a first person account from the same period by either Abdallah, or other Tuareg men who had been involved with either one of the uprisings. By telling the story in this way the film makers allow you to digest each piece of information fully before moving on to the next stage of the history, and so gradually the full picture of what's happened prior to this movie being made is developed.
The Tuareg people are a nomadic tribe that has roamed the Sahara desert for as long as people have been around those parts. While they are nominally Muslim, they don't live in circumstances that allow them to build mosques, so their methods of worship differ from those of other Muslims. Their traditional territory is now split up between four African countries, and it's two of them, Niger and Mali, where most of the Tuareg's problems have been. Primarily the Tuareg have simply wanted to be left alone to live as they have always lived, travelling with their flocks from grazing land to grazing land as the seasons change, but droughts in recent years have forced many of them off the land into refugee camps and cities.
When Desert Rebel was filmed in 2005 cracks were starting to appear in the treaties that had been worked out with governments of Mali and Niger after the uprisings of the nineties, mainly due to the opening up of Uranium mines in Niger. Not only have there been reports of high radiation levels in near by communities because of the mines, but somehow or other none of the money being generated by the mines is finding its way into the local economy.
At the beginning of the movie we find out that when the director, Francois Bergeron, returned to Niger in 2007 he was arrested and jailed, as was one of the people interviewed in the movie, because they were suspected of being part of the most recent Tuareg uprising. In 2007, frustrated with the breakdown of the treaties and the way they are being treated by the regime in Niger, the Tuareg had re-armed and taken to the desert to begin waging a guerilla campaign against the government.
Bergeron was arrested in August of 2007 and released in the following October. While it's obvious his sympathies are with the Tuareg, it's ironic that a man who was wanting to make a movie recording a cultural exchange between two groups of musicians would end up imprisoned. Although since the Niger government was also busy shutting down a weekly newspaper that was printing a story sympathetic to the Tuareg cause, and confiscating all copies of the offending issue, maybe it's not overly surprising.
Somehow, in spite of this, and all the other politics that are involved, the music that motivated the French musicians to travel out into the Saharan desert in the first place manages to remain the primary focus of the movie. Impromptu concerts held in various outposts and camps in the Sahara show how easy it is for artists to find common ground. Songs that the Tuareg musicians have taught their French counter parts during the long hours driving are performed with little, or no, rehearsal. While the percentage of footage given over to actual performance is small compared to the rest of the movie, the journey the musicians take continues on past the trek in the desert to a recording studio in France and a music festival in Quebec, Canada.
During the uprisings of the nineties musicians like Abdallah Oumbadougou fought for their people with automatic weapons and guitars. Today he is still fighting for his people, but now it's on an international stage with the aid of musicians from another country, and his guitar. The DVD Desert Rebels: Ishumars The Forgotten Rockers Of The Desert is the story of how this cultural alliance came about, and a people's struggle to hold onto their way of life. Nobody will ask you for money, nobody is asking for pity, all they want is a chance to tell their story and be heard. That's not too much to ask for is it?
(Originally posted September 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.