Film gives voice again to Mali’s silenced musicians

Thursday August 22, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- When Kathryn Werntz sets out to repay a debt, she takes it very seriously.

About seven years ago, when Werntz was working for UNICEF in Senegal, she and a friend got seriously and dangerously lost in the desert on a motorcycle trip.

Without the help of local tribespeople, she and her friend never would have made it out.

"She felt very indebted," said Jeryl Julian Cissé, who worked with Werntz in Senegal and now teaches Spanish at Leland & Gray.

In 2012, Werntz saw a chance to repay the people of Africa. It grew out of the crisis in Mali, which developed when al-Qaida took over the northern part of the country, terrorizing much of the populace, inflicting severe punishment, including amputations on people who didn’t adhere to strict Muslim law and destroying many important historic sites. They also outlawed music, an important part of Malian culture. Werntz was moved to do something.

"I remember conversations with her saying ‘Nobody’s paying attention,’" said Cissé.

Werntz began writing articles, but when those didn’t seem to move people to action, she decided to make a documentary film about the situation, even though she had never made a film before in her life.

She managed to find people to help her and secure funding, and the result is "Sahel Calling," which was released on June 20 of this year, World Refugee Day.

Since she made the film, France and other African nations have intervened to remove to al-Qaida and stabilize the situation in Mali, but things remain fragile.

"Sahel Calling" can still do its work in the world. A beautiful, 40-minute film with a prevailing message of hope and plenty of music, "Sahel Calling" focuses on the displaced people, in particular the musicians. It portrays, in the musicians’ own words, the important role of music in the Malian culture.

"The focus is mostly on the music. They did not want it to be a political film," said Cissé. "Music has always been a major part of Malian culture. She focused on what happens when the music is silenced."

As part of this year’s Abene African Dance and Drum Festival, there will be a screening of "Sahel Calling" at 7 p.m., at The Stone Church, followed at 8 p.m., by African-inspired music by Derrik Jordan, Julian Gerstin and Tony Vacca and then a performance of West African music and dance by Caro Diallo, Pape N’Diaye, Namory Keita and other festival musicians.

The screening follows a Malian meal by Dienba Macalou (of Brattleboro Farmers’ Market fame). Cissé will be on hand with information about how you can get involved in the "Sahel Calling" project by hosting screenings, sending funds and helping to spread the word. Future project plans include a second documentary about the role of music in developing democracies.

Abene organizers were pleased to add the film to the festival offerings. "It deepens the perspective for all of us," said Naomi Lindenfeld.

Admission to the Malian meal is $12 and to the Saturday performance is $10. The screening of the film is free, but donations are welcome. For more on the festival, visit

For information on the Sahel Calling Project, visit


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