Review: Sahel Calling

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Reviewing documentaries often requires a bit more effort than reviewing films because documentaries are generally about something rather more focused and need to be a little better informed.  That means I have to be equally well informed if I want to identify any bias or inaccuracies.  Luckily, Sahel Calling keeps it simple – war in Mali bad; music good.  I have not put a huge amount of research into this view but, I have to say, on the face of it I agree whole-heartedly.

Simplicity of focus is something which runs throughout Sahel Calling.  It eschews any real depth when discussing the reasons behind Mali’s current conflict in favour of sticking to its guns and investigating the role of music as a restorative power and a symbol to rally around.   At a mere 39 minutes long, it would have been easy for the central issue to get lost, if tangents (no matter how interesting they may be) had been indulged, and it shows great restraint and discipline on the part of director, John Bosch, to keep his work so streamlined.

As soon as the documentary has briefly explained the situation within Mali (the North of the country is a warzone, held by Islamic fundamentalists, who have imposed Shariah law), it moves on to highlighting the place of music within Malian culture.  Bosch does a good job of painting the African nation as a melting pot of cultures and, resultantly, their music.  Every aspect of society seems accompanied by music, with one interviewee going so far as to state, “Our life is music – from birth to death, music is always present”.

The film then sets about interviewing groups of musicians.  It is interesting to hear their take on the situation, especially when it is revealed that under the extreme reading of Shariah law being implemented in the North, music has been banned. The seemingly contradictory ideas of a nation so wrapped up in musical tradition being, in part, governed by a group banning music is saddening, and bizarre…way to get the people on your side, boys! Listening to the thoughts and views of the various musicians interviewed is enlightening, and it’s nice to get a glimpse of a culture I knew exactly nothing about before hitting ‘play’ on this documentary.

Criticising a film about refugees in one of the poorest nations on Earth is never going to online casinos leave me smelling of roses, but sadly, that’s the stinky tightrope I walk in this job, so here we go – for all its focus, Sahel Calling comes off as something of a pointless endeavour.  If its focus was to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis going on in Northern Mali then mission accomplished, but it would have better served its cause by educating the masses about the reasons for, and the actions our governments are taking (if any) to stop, the situation.  Instead, by going in via the back door of music, what we have is a 39 minute documentary of someone going around Mali asking musicians (exclusively musicians are interviewed) if they think it’s terrible that music has been banned.  Again, I don’t want to sound like I’m overly informed in this situation, but surely musicians ANYWHERE are going to be against the banning of music? It’s a foregone conclusion, and as a result, really didn’t need documenting.   By including only one or two Malians who don’t identify themselves as “musicians” it would have given a far more accurate, and holistic idea of just how important music is to the people of the country.

Furthermore, it is not really a startling realisation that a) music is a binding factor, or b) has the ability to make people feel better.  Throughout twentieth century history we have examples of groups, or movements, falling in behind particular singers or sounds; the Dylan-esque protestor songs of the 60s and 70s, the Beatnik generations coming of age at Woodstock, the millions of teenagers the world over whose parents just didn’t understand them like Kurt Cobain did, even the phenomenal sales of Elton John’s rehashed “Candle in the Wind”, crystallizing a shocked nation’s thoughts and feelings of Diana, all show how music galvanises people.

Sahel Calling does a lot right.

It is colourful, has an interesting take on raising awareness, doesn’t outstay its welcome, and spectacularly succeeds in showing just how seriously musicians in Mali take their craft and the music that surrounds them in (if the documentary is to be believed) all aspects of their life.  However, as well as being one of the films great strengths, its single-minded focus on JUST the music is also one of its main drawbacks, failing to give any real indication as to the severity of the situation, it’s likely duration, or what we, now that we are aware, can do.


Sahel Calling is available for free viewing online at:

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.



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