The Festival in the Desert - The film review
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The Festival in the Desert (DVD)
Directed by Lionel Brouet
Triban Union - Distributed by World Village, US

cd cover What is the Festival in the Desert? The DVD tells a good bit of the story of the event itself - of the local associations in the north of Mali that organize it, of the international musicians who perform there, of the reasons for the festival itself. But this film documenting a portion of the organization of this undertaking - a three day event held literally in the middle of the desert - left me with a great deal more questions about the event that answers. This is not necessarily a fault of the films' creators, but is a reflection of the curious nature of the Festival itself.

Or maybe I just have too many questions about how they pull the event off. Where did the dry ice needed to produce so much stage fog come from? How many generators are needed to power the lights and sound system? Did the organizers pick such a remote location, 40 miles from Timbuktu, to prevent uninvited guests - those who don't arrive in SUVs or on camels - from showing up?

The film shows a good deal of festival ambiance. The beginning is heavy with footage establishing the setting and evoking the vastness of the desert: trucks driving through sandy tracks, lone figures poised on top of sand dunes, equipment being unloaded, and, of course, lots of camels and SUVs. The film's real strength is presenting the scripted ambiance of the festival, rather than complete performances or the whole picture of how the festival is organized.

Most of the DVD is a mix of music and interviews with organizers and artists. There are performances by Tartit, Oumou Sangaré, Lo'Jo, Tinariwen, Robert Plant and Justin Adams, Blackfire, Django Cissoko, and Ali Farka Touré, as well as a few impromptu songs from local artists unknown outside the region. DVD extras include an interview with Issa Dicko, the conference manager, a gallery of still photos that plays with an extra song by Tinariwen. The performances illustrate the contrasts of the festival itself. The performance by Oumou Sangaré is a tribute to northern Mali, and features her invitation to Ali Farka Touré to dance. However, the performance is incomplete, intercut with interviews with Sangaré and Touré, and finally, unsatisfyingly, is cut off by the filmmaker. The performance by Tinariwen receives similar treatment. On the other hand, we see entire songs by Robert Plant and Justin Adams ("Win my train fare home"), the Native American group Blackfire ("Common Enemy"), and Django Cissoko ("Laisse-moi dire"), and Ali Farka Touré's "Goye Kur" finishes the film under the credits.

The effort put forth to produce the festival is enormous; as a Lo'Jo performer points out, most of the equipment and supplies were hauled first from the Malian capitol, Bamako, to Timbuktu, then from there to the festival site at Essakane. There are several moments where the utility or even the ethics of the festival are questioned by interviewees, especially during the last fifteen minutes. Some of these questions are often asked of large international aid organizations. Denis Péan of Lo'Jo wonders at the incredible efforts that were made to haul so much equipment and so many supplies and people to the middle of the desert. Could these resources be better used if applied directly to the problems faced by the Tuaregs? That is not a question for him as a musician to answer, he says. Like it or not, the festival has been organized and Lo'Jo is performing in a show of support for the Saharan people. Robert Plant, commenting (I assume) on the resolution of the political problems of nomadic Tuaregs, opines: "The political means to an end must far outweigh any of our musical flirtations. There's stuff going on here which we're obviously not party to. There are bonds and friendships being made, alliances of some kind another, and the music is... probably just a soundtrack."

Once these questions are raised, could the filmmaker have pursued them, and shown in greater depth what the soundtrack means to the audience at the festival? What does a nomadic Tuareg make of the energetic hard-rock performance of Blackfire? What do the tourists who traveled thousands of miles make of obscure local groups without the glamour of an Oumou Sangaré or a Tinariwen? What kind of communication went on between the visitors and their hosts? Unfortunately it seems we will have to wait for a film on "The Making of the Festival in the Desert." - Craig Tower

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