Last night, I sat through a surprisingly good film (in amazingly uncomfortable seats at the Navy Memorial Theatre) on Mali’s Festival in the Desert, which was held annually from 2001 until the conflict in Mali forced the cancellation of the 2013 edition. You can read the background on how The Last Song Before the War came to fruition in the Washington City Paper.
The Ambassadors of Mali, Senegal, and Burkina Faso were in attendance. The Malian Ambassador, Al-Maamoun Keita read from a prepared speech following the film on Mali’s path back to democracy. Interestingly, he has a very detailed LinkedIn profile, which shows that he is endorsed for ‘international relations and foreign policy.’
There were initially some technical difficulties which must have given the film’s producers a considerable amount of angst, fortunately they had several entertainers on hand, so the Malian Griot Cheick Hamala Diabate, was able to distract the audience while the problem was rectified.
The film begin with a brief interview of the festival’s director, Manny Ansar (who is English-speaking and quite a charismatic figure) at his Bamako offices. We were then treated to some footage of travel overland to the festival’s location in Mali’s north, including some impressive scenes of the Niger river and Mosques at Djenne and Timbuktu, until we arrived at the festival location, just outside Timbuktu.
My favorite part of the film detailed the efforts to transform a patch of desert into the festival site. Manny Ansar recounted some acute stress with the delivery of the Sound System, which was trucked and ferried from Timbuktu.
The bulk of the film however weaved between footage of the festival’s various performers at night and interviews of them during the day. I have no idea how the ethnic composition of the festival’s performers breaks down, but there certainly seemed to be a focus on the Tuareg guitarists.
One critique of the film would be that there were not many interviews of festival goers and most of those who were interviewed were Europeans. We did see some footage of Taiwanese journalists arriving at the Timbuktu airport to cover the event and Manny Ansar informed us that the number of non-Africans who attend the festival never numbered more than 600 – out of roughly 8,000.
At the end of the film, the producer, Andrea Pappito, the Producer, and Kiley Kraskouskas, the Director (both are DC-based), engaged in a brief Q&A. Despite the embarrassingly public protestations of what was apparently a very aggrieved theatre manager (events were a few minutes behind schedule, apparently he took no lessons of patience from the movie) the night closed with two performances from Malian rapper Supernova, who I have been reliably informed by Peace Corps Mali volunteers is the son of Ambassador Keita. If you really regret missing that, there are several Supernova performances available for viewing online, such as this one at a Mali relief concert in DC.