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Return to Timbuktu: Documentary Film in Progress with Michael Meredith

Michael Meredith is an independent filmmaker, screenwriter and director, well known for his collaborations with Wim Wenders. Through Wenders, Michael has become a huge fan of Malian music, and over the past two years he has been working on his first documentary, focused on the role of musicians in the ongoing political crisis in Mali. The film is tentatively titled Return to Timbuktu, and this link will take you to more information on the project and how you can help it get completed.  Meanwhile, Afropop’s Banning Eyre caught up with Michael in New York recently. Michael was fresh from two months in Mali, including his first visit to Timbuktu. His impressions are vivid and revealing and add new dimensions to the complex and fascinating history now unfolding in on one of Africa’s richest musical lands. Here’s their conversation.

Banning Eyre:  Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us how you got involved with Mali.

Michael Meredith in New York (Eyre 2014)

Michael Meredith in New York (Eyre 2014)

Michael Meredith: I first got turned on to the music by Wim Wenders.  I wrote a film for him called Land of Plenty, and we were working on that. I lived with him for about a year or so. He’s a huge music fan, with a massive collection. I think Ali Farka Toure was the first person I heard. And I was like: Who is this guy who’s been ripping off John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters? I then learned it was the other way around.

How long ago was that?

About seven or eight years ago.

Tell us a little about your work up to that point.

The first film I did was musically inspired as well. It was called Three Days of Rain. I actually started off in the theater. I was a big fan of Russian literature and Russian playwriting; Chekhov short stories impacted me. So for this film, I took a collection of short stories and contemporized them and set them in Cleveland—in a rainstorm. One of the characters was Lyle Lovett who is a DJ in Cleveland, and the music was playing throughout this rainstorm, while people were having trying to deal with all these issues. It’s not totally dissimilar to what is going on in Mali. The music in Mali definitely got outlawed and banned and was silenced, but it has been playing quietly behind the scenes throughout this crisis.

So that film worked. Then, years later, I was writing this film for Wim, Land of Plenty, and he turned me onto Malian music. I originally wanted to write a narrative film set in Mali. I had all kinds of ideas. I eventually reached out to Manny Antsar, the director of the Festival in the Desert. I said, “Can I be your filmographer? Your photographer? Just use me somehow so I can come over and get to know Mali and be part of the festival.” He said yes, and that’s when all hell broke loose.

(Micheal Meredith 2014)

You’re talking about January 2013, when the French troops came into Mali.

Yeah. The festival was canceled. And not long after, French paratroopers started falling from the sky.

As I recall, the plan for 2013 had been to have a traveling festival, right?

It was called the Caravan of Peace. There were two  different groups of musicians, one coming from Niger, one from Mauritania. And they were going to meet up somewhere near Ouagadougou. That was the plan, to stage the festival there. They were literally circling the areas of conflict with music. It was a crusade kind of thing where guitars were going to try to trump rocket launchers from Libya and crazy Islamic extremists. And I said, “This is a major story.” Manny had a great plan. But the French that canceled it; they kind of put the kabosh on the whole idea.

So where were you when this went down?

I stayed in Bamako the whole time. I really couldn’t get out of the city. I got there the day that the French invaded.  They just locked it down. That wasn’t what I was expecting. So I greeted Manny, and I decided that I should do a documentary on him and his efforts in the music. He said that would be great. I flew to Berlin, told Wim what I wanted to do. He called Alex Gibney and got him on the phone, and we decided I would go back when the Caravan of Peace was restaged. So the first, smaller incarnation of that happened about two months ago. It basically stayed in Burkina Faso, but ended up in Segu. Really the heart of it happened in Bobo Dioulasso, Ouagadougou and the refugee camp in Djibo.FestivalRoster

So you moved with that caravan. Who were the musicians?

Mariam Kone, Khaira Arby, Sidi Toure, the Tuareg group Amanar, a few others. All these people were on the bus.

Where it is Djibo?

That’s the town in Burkina Faso closest to Timbuktu. You go straight south, and cross the border, and you find Djibo.  That’s where the Mentao Refuge Camp is. There were two concerts, one in that camp, and then one in the town. And then we drove back all the way to Segu.

How many refugees are in that camp?

Tens of thousands.

And how are the conditions?

It’s pretty bad, very depressing, sand and wind blowing constantly. They get good water and rations of rice and some money. It’s better than what would have happened to them if they’d stayed in Mali during the whole thing, but it’s sad to me. These are nomadic people. They don’t want to stay in one place.

So why is it that they don’t go home now?

Well, they are. They are starting to. And that concert, actually, sort of opened some floodgates with refugees. I traveled with close to 100, after the concert. We drove back.

Djibo camp (Michael Meredith)

Djibo camp (Michael Meredith)

Was this an explicit message of the concert, that it was OK to go home? And was there some reluctance that had to be overcome?

Yes. And yes. It’s really tricky because the musicians feel that that is the first step, the reconciliation, people going home and living together again, the Tamashek and the black Malians, letting bygones be bygones, not holding grudges. Because a lot of people blame the Tuareg for opening the doors to Islamic extremism.

And the musicians are actively presenting a message to counter that.

Yes, and it’s a hard message to swallow. It is not 100 percent safe yet. It’s a brave first step. I think it does need to happen, but is not gonna happen without hiccups, and worse.

Who is most at risk, and why?

Anyone who had any kind of involvement with the Tuareg separatists, the MNLA or any of the extremist organizations. Even if they were forced to be involved in any kind of way, they’re at risk. There was a guy who became a friend of mine in Timbuktu. He had little sandwich shop, and he served sandwiches to some of the Islamists. He was one of the first people arrested when the French cleared the extremists out. They took him in a helicopter to Bamako and he spent eight months in jail because he served sandwiches to the wrong guy. So sometimes their situations where you are even part of a group, or affiliated with anybody. You were just around them. So it’s dangerous.

Originally, people were afraid of revenge killing, which did happen. There were some horrifying things that went on during the uprising. Malian military guys were executed with their hands tied. In my opinion the Tuareg were not directly involved in these things. They didn’t execute these guys themselves. But they might have overrun a military base, and then the AQMI (Al Quaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) guys come in and did that stuff.

Tuareg Blue Smoke (Micheal Meredith)

Tuareg Blue Smoke (Michael Meredith)

That sounds like the larger story that we heard during these events. The Tuareg separatists were used by better organized and more determined Islamists who had been lying in wait for an opportunity like this. They effectively used the Tuareg and their aspirations and took control of the situation. I’ve always felt that the reality must be more complicated than that. Have you been able to come to a clearer picture of what went on?

Well, no. But if I were to generalize about it, that’s not far off. There are definitely specific incidents in smaller groups within the population that were more involved and were not surprised by the things that happened, or even who became affiliated, and jumped ship and went with the Islamist organizations. They’ve all been lumped in together now. I think the thing now is communicating and educating. Musicians are kind of like journalists in Mali now. There is an illiteracy issue, so newspapers aren’t really doing the job. Lyrics in songs are explaining that there is a difference between people. Not all the Tuareg are guilty. They’re not all AQMI and Ansar Dine (defenders of the faith). There are certain situations where it is true, but you can’t cast an entire population into that scenario.

That is interesting, the idea that in an largely illiterate society, musicians have a larger role and responsibility. Tell me: Were there specific songs in the Caravan for Peace concert that were designed to deliver a particular message about these things? Were the songs themselves designed to influence people?

I can’t give you specific examples. But I would see the audience reaction. For example, when the Tuareg band Amanar came out, there was definitely a different reaction. You’d have the young kids coming out with the Azawad flags. [Azawad is the name for the Tuareg homeland.] Some of them even got arrested at one of the concerts for getting a little unruly. But I didn’t think that was a message that was coming from the musicians. They were not singing about Azawad, the Tuareg state, in their lyrics. But they would evoke that kind of reaction. That was not what the musicians were after. They were on the stage together. They all got on this bus. It was a really rough trip. There were three buses involved because they kept breaking down. People were sleeping on the sides of roads and playing around campfires at two in the morning waiting for an alternator to get fixed. Everyone was together, and it was an amazing thing. And people heard about it. Word got out.

Maybe the concerts themselves were limited to whoever could get there. We had some trouble with getting people to concerts. Manny had arranged some buses to bring people to Ouagadougou from the refugee camps, and to the Burkina powers that be refused to let them on the bus when the time came. But the message still got out. People heard about it. The musicians were playing together. There was a feeling of forgiveness. Let’s move forward. Let’s go back to where we came from. That was powerful to me.

(Micheal Meredith)

(Micheal Meredith)

What about the message that it was OK to go home? Was that an explicit message that the musicians were trying to communicate, especially in the refugee camps?

Yes, but that was the tricky part. I traveled with a couple of groups. Some of them would get arrested the second they landed inside Mali. People would hear that they were coming, and they would arrest them.

This is the Malian military arresting Tuaregs returning home?

The Malian police. Most of the Tuareg are even more afraid of the military, and some still are, because that’s where the revenge killings were happening for a while. But now, what I saw was that the message has come down from the top that that can’t happen. The military are still angry, and they will never forget some of the things that happened, but they are not overstepping. There have been prosecutions of military guys for revenge killings. So that’s created a little bit more safety for the Tuareg. But the police, the gendarmes, arrested three people that I was with, and they all got released eventually.

Are they arresting them so that they can interrogate them and find out who is really involved in bad stuff, or is it just an act of intimidation?  I mean, it’s probably hard for you to know that, but to the extent you can size it up…

One of the guys was a very famous Tuareg chief, an older man in his 80s. He was symbolic. If he came back, it meant something. It would send a message to all the camps that it is safe now. You won’t be harassed. Your neighbors haven’t stolen all your land. They’re not gonna make up lies so they can keep your land and get you arrested. So when they arrested him, everyone heard about it. And when they let them go, everyone heard about that. That was definitely a political, symbolic move, to say, “You are not going to come back unnoticed. But if you haven’t broken any laws, and if you weren’t a war criminal, you will be allowed to go back to your lives.”

But you are going to be noticed.

You’re going to be noticed. They might ask you some questions. But I think this sends a message to the majority of the Tuareg: come home. It’s fine. But if you behave really badly during the uprising, then you may have to answer for that. But they let him out. And his son was arrested too, and from what I heard from local people, he was more involved. He had carried arms and been more high profile. But he also was released.

MM_cropped-13So word about these events gets back to the camps, and people make their judgment about whether their own story lets them go back or not. But I would imagine that they all would like to go back, right?

They all want to go back. And they can find a way. These are nomads. They can find a way home. It’s just safety and security that concerns them. And they have lost resources. Their animals have been killed or taken. Their wells may not be clean anymore. There may be some people who’ve come and squatted on their land. They know they will have some issues, and they don’t necessarily have resources. If they come back empty-handed, it will be tough. There is security in the camp. There’s that ration and stipend. But everyone I talked to wants to go home.

So when the Festival ended in Segu, you went to Timbuktu. And this was your first visit there?

Yes. I went from Segu directly to Timbuktu, and then from there back to the camps, and then back to Timbuktu. Because I wanted to see the effect that the music had had, to talk to people and travel with them. I felt like the fact that these concerts had happened, that they were able to be staged inside the camp meant something to the refugees. And there are powers that be who are profiting from the camps and don’t want the refugees to leave necessarily. It’s a moneymaking machine. That town, for instance, Djibo, people are building permanent structures there. There are dozens and dozens of people who are being employed that weren’t before. There is an economy in that town that is now probably three or four times the size of what it was before.

Interesting. So what is now a refugee camp is in the process of becoming part of this town?

It will be an extension of a town that was already there. The camp is right outside of the town. But because of the money that comes in from the UN, the town is growing, and it will all eventually be part of one big town. There are profits being made. But for now, they are separated. I got arrested and had my camera confiscated and my memory cards erased for being in the camp.

That hurt.

Yeah, so they don’t want journalists going in there. When the concert was happening, it was fine. There were so many of us. But when I went back, they nabbed me. There are so many different organizations there. There is a group that is responsible for effectively policing the camp, deciding who goes in and goes out, registering refugees when they come and go, distributing rations and all that. And they are the ones who have jobs but didn’t have jobs before. There are gendarmes there, the police, the military. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out who exactly doesn’t want you there.

MIchael Meredith in New York (Eyre, 2014)

Michael Meredith in New York (Eyre, 2014)

It reminds me of the old days working in Africa. A lot fewer people had cameras, and if you pulled one out, it became a great excuse for any sort of official to bribe you if you didn’t have official permission. It always felt very opportunistic. But it sounds like here, there is some rational basis to stop in you from documenting what’s going on.

In this particular case, they didn’t want the word to be getting out by means of a film or anything like that, that it was time to return.

Is there actually an effort to propagandize the refugees, to convince them that it’s not safe to go home, and that they are better off staying in the camp?

Definitely. And that was fascinating. This is why it was so powerful that Manny was actually able to pull these concerts off. And there were complications. They tried to cancel at the last minute. They yanked his generators. There had to be two smaller concerts instead of one big one inside the camp, as originally planned. There was just a sense that the time to return was coming. People were starting to be open about that idea, and that permeated. That word traveled throughout the camp. I could never really get the real dirt on what happened, but at the last minute, there were these problems. I don’t think they quite realized how powerful this was going to be.

Perhaps at first they thought it would just be entertainment for the refugees, but then they saw that there was a message in this.

That’s what I think. It was just going to be a PR moment, and then all of a sudden they realized what it meant. They did not allow the refugees to go to the concert in Ouagadougou. And the refugees should be free to come and go as they want. There were buses that were paid for that one out there to pick them up, and they were not allowed to do that. So they didn’t come to the concert.

Let’s talk about your experience in Timbuktu. You say that there’s been something of a groundswell of people returning from the camps, and that the concerts had something to do with that.

Well, I think they were all ready to go. They were just waiting for some kind of sign. Some left before the concert. I think around November or December of last year the first families started to head back. If you are in a more remote area, not in the vicinity of Timbuktu, it’s safer. So those families were going home back then. Then when you have someone like Manny, who’s the director of this famous festival from Timbuktu, I think that had an effect on people. And it’s Khaira Arby singing. That sends a message.

Khaira Arby (Michael Meredith, 2014)

Khaira Arby (Michael Meredith, 2014)

Speaking of the messages in songs, I did an interesting interview last year with Rokia Traore. She felt that some of the songs that were being written were little bit too easy, just saying we want peace and unity. And she wrote the song “Beautiful Africa,” which argued that Malians need to take some more responsibility for what happened, rather than just blaming it on outside forces. I thought that was interesting, a more challenging message. It still saying we can have peace and we want peace, but also saying we have to really look at what happened and see our role in it.

That’s good. I think that’s true.

So, your arrival in Timbuktu. Talk about that.

It was an incredible life experience. I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve filmed in Cuba. I’ve been in lots of exotic and forbidden places. The fact that you can’t get there, first of all, is so interesting. Therefore it is shut down. You can’t get a flight. I didn’t know enough about the road to trust it. I didn’t know how safe that was. So I went by boat, three days in the boat, all the way from Mopti to Timbuktu. That was an amazing journey. And then arriving in Timbuktu. The boat comes, and you land at the ferry port where you go on the worst road I have ever been on in my life. It’s the only paved road in northern Mali. I felt like if I was a director and I asked the production designer to give me a really messed-up road, I would come and see and say, “Great work, but it’s over the top. People aren’t going to believe it. Fill in half of the potholes and I will call action.”

But it’s beautiful at the same time—eucalyptus trees all around. And it has that fabled history and mystique. As a Westerner, being that far off the map, for me, I loved it.

Michael Meredith on the Niger

Michael Meredith on the Niger

And you were filming all of this?

Yes. I wanted to investigate Timbuktu a little before I went back to the camps and traveled with refugees. I wanted a sense of before and after. And it was intense. One guy told me in a little tea shop there, “One thing you have to remember, is that around here, your skin is not white. It’s gold. You are worth a lot of money if they can kidnap you.” So you have that fear. It’s happened many times before.

How did you protect yourself against that?

I didn’t. There are two ways I was told I could go. Either you could hire military guys to travel with you, armed escorts. I just thought: how am I going to get any good interviews or get to the real story, get people to relax and open up to me when I’ve got guys with guns? Or you can just get on the back of the moped with a fixer and be the only crazy white guy in town without Kevlar and a helmet, and get your security from the people. Which I got. After about a week of being there, the residents that I had met were so impressed with the fact that I was trying to get to the truth, and really wanting to know their full story, and not a news team coming in for a day, they helped me.

I was there for about a month. They would text me and say, “Stay away from the market today.” Because they were just gonna hear a rumor that there might be someone trying to set off a bomb. It was intense.

Did things like that happen when you were there?

Yes. I was woken up at my hotel by mortar shells not too far away. They didn’t do any damage, but people came in from the desert and launched three mortars. These are the Islamists who are still out in the desert.

What was your sense of their presence? You know that there are some out in the desert, but did you meet anyone in town who was in any way openly sympathetic to the Islamists? Did you feel like that force was still a presence?

I did not find any sympathizers with the extremists. I don’t think the Islamic extremists ever really understood Mali. Just take music. To outlaw music in a country like Mali, you don’t get the people. That’s not hearts and minds.

Timbuktu (Michael Meredith)

Timbuktu (Michael Meredith)

I read somewhere someone saying that if they’d just stop short of banning music, they might have succeeded. Did anyone say that you?

No. No. I just fell like that country is so special, and the people are so beautiful, and music is such a part of the fabric of the nation, the soul of the country. You can’t take away the soul of the country and expect it to work. I think everyone feels like these were just foreigners, most of them from other countries. I didn’t get any feeling of sympathy for those groups.

As far as their presence within the city, I didn’t feel like there were spies or people that were secretly AQMI or Ansar Dine. But I did fill their present, because they were constantly trying to disrupt things. There are discussions now between MNLA and the government. They are trying to come to some agreement, and the Islamists are trying to disrupt that process. They do things like mortar shelling in the middle of the night. They came into a town not too far from Timbuktu on some trucks and shot guns up in the air and drove around the town square, then zoomed back out into the desert. They kidnapped two Malian Red Cross people. On their radios, people would hear chatter about planned attacks suicide bombs, things of this nature.

That all sounds kind of desperate, actually.

They are desperate. I think they are. I think the French really did damage when they came in. I was there. It seemed like they had been taking notes for a while. They knew where the stockpiles were. They were amazingly effective.

That’s interesting. It sounds like they were more effective than some of the reporting would indicate.

I think so. They did an impressive job in a very short period of time. The guys that I talked to and met–I just feel like they are an impressive, professional group, doing their job well. They took out a bunch of guys in the desert while I was there. I think it was a U.S. drone that spotted 12 of them, and then the French went in and got them. They are there. But I think a lot of them went back to Libya or Algeria. They crossed back into their borders. They still want to preserve that presence, that brand, but as far as the effect on the accord, I’m not sure how much effect is going to have. They’re not at the table.

Sajou (Micheal Meredith)

Sajou (Micheal Meredith)

So did you get a sense that people are starting to believe that it will ever be possible to come back to some kind of normality in Timbuktu?

Yes. It is going to be a slow burn. It’s not going to happen fast. I am really hoping, for instance, that the Festival in the Desert can come back soon. There have been discussions of it happening in November or December, or wait until January. I don’t think it will make much difference between the fall and winter. There is such a militant security presence in Timbuktu. It’s all UN, French troops, Malian military, African coalition army… there are so many different groups. Everyone there is with guns and helmets and barbed wire. It’s gonna take a while for that to go away.

Wow, that’s sure not the way I remember Timbuktu. It seemed very unsupervised when I was there in 2000 and 2003.

Oh yeah. It’s sad to see that. I mean I’ve only seen the film and photographs from before. I was a photojournalist in Afghanistan. I embedded with the troops. And it feels like being in one of those command outposts there. The airport is locked down. So it’s really those military entities that are going to determine when it goes back to normality. Even if there is no real threat, as long as they are there, it’s far from normal. But, within the town–and Timbuktu is a small town. It’s this little village, and within it, life is fairly normal for people. Hanging out with them, they’re starting to play music again. Music is becoming more public. Tuareg music on the radio is more of a presence now.

Cool. Music is coming out of hiding.

Yeah. Well, they had to rebuild the radio stations. They had to make new instruments that had gotten burned and destroyed. They’ve done that. They are broadcasting all the time, and there are little music events. Competitions are happening. Kids are playing football in the main square where they had announced that football was banned. Life is coming back within; it’s just surrounded by sandbags and weaponry.

So what’s the plan for your film?

Well, I am just back a few days now, literally. I still have sand in my hair. I’m distilling a couple of months over there. I feel like I have about half of what I need, and I don’t fully understand what I have. The dust will settle and I will be able to crystallize my ideas and thoughts for moving forward. This is my first documentary. I’ve always done narrative feature films, with actors. In documentary, you follow false leads. It’s part of the documentary groove. I chased a few different stories that I don’t think will ultimately be in the film. I’ve come back to the original page which was: It’s the musicians. It’s coming from the musicians. I don’t know if the Festival in the Desert is going to be the crown jewel at the end of the story, when it returns to Timbuktu. Maybe that will be Act III. It’s a possibility. I want to go back, and I don’t know when that’s going to be, but this year, and follow a group of musicians that hopefully will be part of an album.

I am a huge fan of Wim Wenders, and I love Buena Vista Social Club. He has been a mentor. Cuba was a forbidden land, and Wim took us on a journey through Havana. We got to see this place that was in its way as exotic as Timbuktu. And we follow these wonderful musicians, and this great album came out of it. I would love to see something like that happen with this film. I think my next step is to figure out who are going to be the right musicians to follow. I just filmed everybody on this trip, just trying to absorb and learn as a Westerner over there, figuring out what I could. Now I need to hone in on who these musicians are going to be, and go spend time with them in their daily lives. Maybe they’ll record an album together. Maybe we’ll get on a bus and drive up to Timbuktu when the concert comes back. That would be great. It’s impossible to figure out what could happen with this documentary. I’m used to that.  But if I could write the script, making it up in my head, that would be a nice ending.

Ahmed from Amanar (Micheal Meredith)

Ahmed from Amanar (Michael Meredith)

In Brooklyn last week, we had the interesting phenomena of two Tuareg bands playing on the same night. Imarhan was at Littlefields, and Tinariwen was at Brooklyn Bowl–for two nights actually.

Yeah. I went to both. I thought Imarhan was excellent. I was really impressed with the set.

Yes, and I heard there was a lot of buzz about them at South by Southwest. Tinariwen has had an interesting experience throughout all of this, becoming international rock stars and winning a Grammy at the same time as all of these events are unfolding in their homeland. They had a huge crowd in Brooklyn the other night, and it was not the usual African concert crowd.

Yes, it was packed. Movie stars were there. It was the young, white, Brooklyn crowd.

That band is a phenomenon right now. Things have really come together for them. There are a lot of other Tuareg rock bands now, but Tinariwen still rules the roost.

And they sound great. They have those American connections. You can hear the Dylan, and the Santana, all those connections. They have a very polished thing happening, and they are doing stuff like recording a Joshua Tree. They’re trying to bring it over here.

But at the same time they are very passionate about what’s going on in Mali.

Yes. I interviewed them. They were very tired, and not in the mood to do an interview. But I was asking how their music and message was affecting the situation in Mali. I didn’t feel like they really wanted to answer those questions. They said the political solution had to come from the government, the negotiations, the accord. I felt like I was more in awe of the power of their music than the people I was interviewing were. When I heard Tinariwen on the radio and Timbuktu for the first time since the crisis, and saw people tapping their foot to it or snapping their fingers while they’re making sandwiches or having tea or whatever they’re doing. That means something. That’s a musical olive branch. If you are harboring any kind of resentment to the Tuareg people, and you can start humming a Tinariwen song, that impacted me.

I interviewed Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, the lead singer, in 2012, amid the events. And he really wanted to take the story back to 1960, the idea that the Malians had inherited this fiction from the French that Mali was a unified country. He felt that it never should have been one country, and this was all aimed at trying to right this wrong. But if that’s your view, it’s pretty hard to come to a compromise.

I read that interview. And yeah, I have no idea what the solution is going to be. A semi-autonomous state? Nothing of the kind? I really don’t know.

And even when your film is done, we may still not know.

Probably not.

Well, we will be watching. Stay in touch. It’s a fantastic project.

Thank you.

Sidi Toure (Micheal Meredith)

Sidi Toure (Michael Meredith)

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