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    Doc Talk

    Give us music or give us death

    Musician Moussa Sidi in “They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.”
    Karelle Walker
    Musician Moussa Sidi in “They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile.”

    There are many things not to like about Sharia law, the strict rules imposed by Islamic fundamentalist militants. But what especially galled the people of Mali when jihadists took over the northern part of their country was the militants’ attitude toward music. They killed people for playing or listening to it, and in Mali, home to more than its share of world-famous musicians and the site of the much celebrated Festival in the Desert, music is almost a religion in its own right.

    Newburyport-bred, UK-based director Johanna Schwartz’s documentary “They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile” shows how determined and courageous artists risk their lives and freedom to resist the oppression of a joyless, fanatical tyranny. Though the extremists were expelled by French forces in 2013, Schwartz shows that the threat of a resurgence remains a dangerous possibility. What will be lost if the extremists have their way can be heard on the film’s soundtrack, which includes numbers by Afel Boucom, Songhoy Blues, and Kankou Kouyate.

    “They Will Have to Kill Us First” screens at the Cape Ann Community Cinema & Stage in Gloucester at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, and at the Screening Room in Newburyport from Friday until May 5.

    For more information go to

    Saving transient transitions


    Film, they say, is a universal language, and its fundamental parts of speech include the transitions — establishing shots, aerial shots, driving plates — linking segments of narrative. Though humble when compared to grander, more artistic images, these bits serve a vital function.

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    Now Shutterstock, in conjunction with the British Movietone Moving Pictures Collection, has put online an archive of transition scenes gathered from Pinewood Studios’ movies. They range from the 1930s to the 1960s and include locations in the United States, United Kingdom, India, Italy, Turkey, and South America.

    So if you’re a documentary or independent filmmaker searching for a shot of a British soccer game in the 1960s, or traffic in Istanbul in 1963, or a horse-drawn hackney in Dublin in the 1950s, or maybe you’re just curious to look at these snapshots of ephemera frozen in time, check out the website at It’s a transitional treasure chest and one that will keep growing as more material is added in the weeks and months to come.

    Space cadets

    Many of us who were around to witness the 1969 lunar landing thought at the time that by now, nearly 50 years later, we’d be piloting starships all over the place, setting foot on many strange new worlds and maybe even inhabiting some of them.

    Well, it didn’t happen. It turned out to be full of hot air. Or helium, as was the case with “Project Excelsior,” an Air Force experimental program in which scientists tested how high a human could fly in a balloon. In 1960, a young test pilot named Joseph Kittinger strapped himself into the gondola of one such craft, rose into the stratosphere to a record-breaking attitude of 102,800 feet (about 20 miles), muttered “Lord take care of me now,” and – jumped out.


    To learn more of the events prior to and following this remarkable feat, check out Amanda Pollak’s documentary “American Experience: Space Men.” It celebrates the audacity and vision of pioneers in lighter-than-air travel, which may not have gotten us to the stars, but might prove an alternative way of getting around our own world in the future.

    “American Experience: Space Men” will be available on DVD from PBS Distribution for $24.99 on Tuesday. For more information go to

    Documentarians got talent

    The Mass. Works-in-Progress pitch session is kind of like a documentarian’s version of “Shark Tank.” In it, aspiring filmmakers present a couple of minutes of their unfinished project, spend 10 to 15 minutes explaining it, and then respond to the withering questions and comments of a panel of experts. The top pitch wins $1,000 toward completing the film.

    This year’s candidates are Jon Mercer and Tim O’Donnell’s “Life Without Basketball,” Melissa Dowler’s “Letting Go of Adele,” Kathryn Ramey’s “The Empty Sign,” Nicole Teeny’s “Bulletproof Stockings: Wigs, God, and Rock ’n’ Roll,” Jules Rosskam’s “Paternal Rites,” Mario Cardenas’s “Two Loons,” Gabriel Polansky’s “Release From Reason,” and Beth Balaban and Beth Murphy’s “Son of Saichi.”

    Judges include Monika Navarro, a filmmaker and producer at the WORLD Channel; Sara Archambault, a producer and cofounder of the DocYard; and Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director of The Boston Globe and founder of GlobeDocs. The moderator is Lisa Simmons, director of the Roxbury International Film Festival.

    An annual event co-sponsored by the UMass Boston Film Series and the Independent Film Festival of Boston, the program is part of an effort to develop awareness of and support for the dynamic local documentary community. It’s a chance to see the first efforts of a future Frederick Wiseman or Errol Morris, and chat with him or her at the reception following the competition.


    The Mass. Works-in-Progress Pitch Session takes place on April 28 at
    4 p.m. in the third-floor ballroom of the Campus Center at UMass Boston. Following the session will be a screening of Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams’s feature animation film, “Life, Animated.” The event is free.

    For more information go to

    Peter Keough can be reached at