Arts Desk

How D.C. Filmmakers Documented the Last Festival in the Desert Before Northern Mali Succumbed to War

Last Song Before the War Festival in Desert Three years ago, Andrea Papitto, then the head of a nonprofit in Ghana, called her D.C.–based pal Kiley Kraskouskas, whom she had met at New York University seven years before. Papitto told her about a trip she took to the Festival in the Desert, an annual Malian music event set in the sand dunes outside Timbuktu. Papitto wanted to make a movie about it, and Kraskouskas, who had been working in film production, quickly signed on to direct what would be her first film. Kraskouskas brought in Leola Calzolai-Stewart, a D.C.–based film editor who had once lived in Mali, and the trio formed a company, Essakane Film.

Six months and one Kickstarter campaign later, they headed to north Mali with a crew and filmed the 2011 Festival in the Desert. Shortly after they returned to the U.S., conditions at the film site radically changed—a rebellion in north Mali, an al-Qaida–backed takeover, a coup, a French-led invasion, and the cancellation of this year’s festival—and so did the movie. The Last Song Before the War will have its local debut tonight at 9:15 p.m. at the Navy Memorial Museum Burke Theater as part of the World Music and Independent Film Festival.

This 90-minute work includes performance footage of Malian musicians like Khaira Arby and the group Tartit, gorgeous cinematic shots of people on camels heading to the festival, and vivid images of ramshackle shops along red clay roads in Malian cities. (Also making an appearance: Bono.) Via email, the filmmakers answered questions about the film.

Washington City Paper: Was the plan to just do a concert film, and did the theme then evolve due to what you saw and the subsequent political issues and the war?

Leola Calzolai-Stewart: The initial vision of the film was to do a music documentary about the 2011 Festival in the Desert—a total immersion experience of the festival, the music, the camel races, and the desert itself. But, of course, once we were close to finishing the film, Mali exploded in January 2012 with the rebellion in the North, the insurgence of al-Qaida–backed groups, the coup in Bamako and eventual overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Touré. The country and the region were quickly destabilized. We soon realized we couldn’t ignore the events that were unfolding in Mali, so we reworked the structure of the film to include the crisis. In the end, we think it only further highlights the beauty of the festival, its focus on peace and reconciliation, and the threat of what could be lost if the festival is unable to return.

WCP: Did you consider adding even more historical information on Mali and France and then the later French invasion?

Andrea Papitto: We did, actually. We did a few versions trying to tell the complex history of Mali pre- and post-colonization but found it was not working with the footage we had from Mali, as that was not the original intent of the film. When we were in Mali, our interviews didn’t focus on that, so including that footage became more confusing than helpful in telling the story of the Festival in the Desert. We also felt like it pulled the audience too far away from the joy one experiences at the festival.

WCP: How was fundraising done before and after the filming of the movie?

Kiley Kraskouskas: We funded the film through a 30-day crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, which covered the production phase. We also received a $20,000 grant from the NEA. In addition, Royal Air Maroc gave us three round-trip tickets from New York to Mali, which helped a lot. When we came back from Mali we raised another $10,000 from another crowdfunding campaign and a couple of fundraisers we had. The rest of the budget came out of our pockets and credit cards.

WCP: Why was the band Tinariwen filmed in black and white and in slow motion?

LC-S: Tinariwen is a seminal band with regards to Tuareg culture, Malian music, and the festival itself. In fact, Tinariwen is one of the founders of the festival. Their performance at the 2011 edition was going to be one of our most important acts to shoot but due to a tragic event, the death of a band member’s son, they didn’t attend the festival when we were there. Tinariwen could not be excluded from the film just because they didn’t perform that year. During follow-up interviews with band members in May 2012 in D.C., we shot a live performance with Tinariwen at the Howard Theatre. We decided to include that performance in the film and used a black and white effect and slow motion to set it apart from the live festival performances. We thought by giving it a weighty, poetic feel, the viewer would recognize immediately the importance of the band while also giving it a distinct look separate from the festival itself.

WCP: What technical issues did you face—lighting, blowing sand, generators, etc.—in filming, and how did you deal with them?

AP: We were very lucky to be working with our friend and advisor Abou Ansar when we were filming in Mali, and he helped to coordinate all of the logistics. We were the only tent at the Festival that had electricity, so we were able to set up a transfer station in our tent, just near the stage. Abou was in charge of transferring the media and diligently cleaned the equipment and drives. Our director of photography, Jon Ingalls, shot in Mali before, so he was pretty familiar with the issues we could face as well and cleaned the cameras, lenses, and equipment every night. When we returned home we still found sand in just about everything, but we were pretty lucky to not have any major issues!

WCP: Do you worry that the first 15 minutes before the fest starts provides too slow a buildup to the Fest itself?

LC-S: Honestly, we were a bit worried about that, but we felt strongly that we needed to make something very clear: the economic context in which the festival takes place. Mali depends on tourism. As the Minister of Tourism says in the film, tourism is the country’s third largest sector and contributes an enormous amount to the economy. The festival is one of the country’s most important events and attracts tourists from all over the world. Most of these people travel to the festival by land—a three-day journey. We wanted to bring the viewer along on that journey, which is an integral part of the festival experience, while also subtly showing that it’s not just Timbuktu and the desert communities that benefit economically from the Festival au Desert but all the towns along the way—the guides, the markets, the drivers, etc. If this festival doesn’t happen, if the current political situation keeps tourists away, people all over the country suffer. We decided we were willing to take the time to set that up.

The Last Song Before the War, starring Habib Koite, Vieux Farka Toure, Bombino, Tinariwen, Oumou Sangare, Tartit, Group Amanar, Bassekou Kouyate,  Khaira Arby, Leni Stern, Je Conte and the Malian Allstars, and Afropop Worldwide senior editor Banning Eyre, debuts tonight at 9:15 to 11 at the Navy Memorial Burke Theatre, 701 Pennsylvania Ave NW. Afterward there will be a Q&A session with the filmmakers and Malian Ambassador Al-Maamoun Baba Lamine Keita, plus a live musical performance by Cheick Hamala Diabate and Supernova.

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