Adopting the medium of cinema without attempting to meet its requirements, Robyn Simon’s 62-minute doc, Behind the Blue Veil, would play well as an hour-long special on public television, but feels confused as a feature film.
Mostly consisting of talking heads intercut with on-the-ground B-roll (there are a few characters, but little by way of vérité scenes), the film eschews the slice-of-life moments that can make documentary cinema so gripping. The subject is the Tuareg peoples of Mali, nomadic inhabitants of the Sahara desert whose unique culture and customs are under threat by economic hardships.
Once guardians of cross-Saharan trade (when it was conducted via camel), the Tuareg find themselves in a world where transporting goods doesn’t require their protection, and terrorist groups like Al Qaeda ensure that tourists are kept away from patronizing the villages out of fear of kidnapping.
There’s lots of information in Behind the Blue Veil, much of it interesting: the details of the Tuareg’s matriarchal social structure, or how the French colonization of Northern Africa erected the foundation of the Tuareg’s fall from power.
Two young Tuareg men do get some screen time as we learn about their daily lives (we see one of them, Mamatal, advocating for his impoverished people to Malian government officials), but what we’re presented with is a scattering of scenes amid an overpowering backdrop of geopolitical and anthropological explanation, and nothing resembling drama.