After a year of work, we’ve finally wrapped up our feature film Zerzura. A collaboration between Sahel Sounds and the nascent Imouhar Studio (an all purpose film/music studio in Agadez, Niger), the film is a magical journey through the Sahara, following protagonist and guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane in search for a lost city of riches. Along the way he encounters nomads, djinn, bandits, and gold seekers – a nod to our docu-realist approach to the film. While the concept of a lost desert city film has been kicking around for years, Zerzura was written, produced, and filmed entirely on location. Scenes were done in single takes, sometimes completely improvised.
Zerzura draws from our previous project Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai. Where it differs is that we really ratcheted up the efforts of a collaborative approach this time and with a much larger cast and crew that shared in all the responsibilities and direction of the final project. We were also able to incorporate this collaborative spirit into post-production (with a grant from Regional Arts & Culture Council) with Ahmoudou Madassane coming to Portland, Oregon for one month, working on translation, assisting with editing, and creating a guitar heavy score for the film.
The film premieres tonight in Portland, with screenings in Niger to follow as soon as possible. Our team in Agadez awaits patiently as we get together the budget to make a portable screening that we can take back to the city, surrounding villages, and nomad camps where it was filmed. The goal of making a film that can exist and transcend cultural barrier is a difficult challenge. There are many cultural references that do not make sense in the West, but to launch into outright exposition would be a disservice to the viewers at home. Maybe in the end, like the story of Zerzura itself, everyone sees what they want in city of gold.
The new music video for Ami Yerewolo’s“A San Nièfai” takes Malian Hip Hop into a science fiction future. In the video, a trio of post apocalyptic survivors wander through the Malian countryside, stumbling on the destroyed and smoking ruin of the capital. Meanwhile, they are pursued by a vehicular gang with bandits piled into the back of trucks and screaming stunting motorcycles. The video alternates between Ami rapping in an underground mine shaft and a loose narrative that ends in a showdown between two warring factions. And of course, a dance sequence.
The stylistic choice for the video isn’t wholly surprising and is clearly inspired by the Hype Williams directed 2pac video for California Love and blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road (the former of course being a remake of the 1979 Mad Max, alas). Aside from being a colorful video with a plethora of special effects and tentative narrative structure, the video stands out particularly in the West African context. It is well likely that “A San Nièfai” is the first commercial science fiction production from Mali.
I spoke with Sidiki Goita, director of the video, and co-founder of Vortex Groups, a Bamako based special FX startup. Goita is an engineer by trade, but over the years he’s grown his company to a dozen members, all in their 20s. While working on 3D design, logos, and advertising, Vortex Groups supplements their work with music video production. It’s a lucrative avenue of the struggling Bamako music industry, particularly in contemporary Malian Hip Hop. As Internet enabled cellphones replace the old bluetooth networks of music trading, sites like RHHM and Bamada-City are gatekeepers of new media. Malian Hip Hop artists rely on music videos to advertise and promote their brands. Vortex’s approach varies from the other studio houses, Goita explains. “When Vortex Groups produces a video clip, we make it as though it was a feature length fiction. We write a script, assemble a technicians, make a storyboard…and after finishing all these stages we proceed to scouting the location.”
For what appears to be a large production with cast and costumes, the video for “A San Nièfai” was assembled in pure DIY aesthetic, relying on found materials and free locations. The costumes were salvaged from found materials, transforming motorcycle helmets into armor, calabash turned into shields, and large woven potato sacks for clothing. The video was shot 40 km outside of Bamako at an old quarry for laterite, the iron rich clay used for the quintessential red mud bricks seen across West Africa. Goita was given creative freedom from the artist to make something very different from the standard Bamako Hip Hop video: “The idea of the clip was to break the monotony and the uniformity of the current African videos that loop on the music TV channels, summed up with drone shots of a singer surrounded by a crowd of dancers and also scantily clad girls. The second goal was to shock viewers to the consequences of civil wars, by showing apocalyptic images of their city.”
Science fiction has always been a genre of speculation and warnings, projections that reflect on utopic and dystopic futures. While fantasy and horror have a place in oral tradition, science fiction doesn’t exist in Mali. Only now are the possibilities being explored as technology allows low budget experimentation to redesign reality through 3D animation, compositing, and green screen. So why isn’t there more science fiction? “The problem that persists is a conflict of generations,” Goita explains. “The old ones who have mastered the network of studio production are not ready to leave the beaten track. They are content with simple cinema without technical stakes – just simple stories of love and politics.”
Sidiki Goita says the ultimate goal with Vortex Groups is to produce feature films. Their music videos are calling cards, examples of what can be accomplished with a little investment. “In the West, the cinemas are exhausted, they only make remakes and films of superheroes,” Goita says. “Like our mining resources, our stories and legends are not even exploited to 5%…The younger generation does not have access to funding to produce high-quality films. Foreign partners should trust African youth to finance projects. With less than $20,000, we could would make an African version of Mad Max which could rival productions with 10 times the budget!”
Our friends at the Neopan Kollektiv have finished up their documentary “A Story of Sahel Sounds.” The film is what it says on the tin. A few years back, the filmmakers reached out about a project to document the work of Sahel Sounds. Over the past 3 years, the film team joined us on some of the first European tours with Mamman Sani and Mdou Moctar, came along to Niger on a month long recording trip, and visited us at home in rainy Cascadia, worlds away from the Sahel.
“The film celebrates music performances by current artists from Niger and opens up a space to question our understanding of cultural exchange, musical connections and political structures. Against the backdrop of ever-growing globalization, although influenced by an unequal distribution of power, new possibilities for self-determination open up, these artists attempt to make it big – on the stage and on the mobile phones of their fans. Inspired by Christopher Kirkley’s work, the film overcomes cultural and geographical distances and offers a new perspective on a region which most of us only know as a crisis zone.”
We recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for our new film “Zerzura,” a modern Tuareg folktale. You can check out the trailer at the above link. The film follows a young man from in Niger who leaves home in search of an enchanted oasis. His journey leads him into a surreal vision of the Sahara, crossing paths with djinn, bandits, gold seekers, and migrants.
Following in the footsteps of our previous film “Akounak” (Zerzura stars Ahmoudou Madassane, rhythm guitarist for Mdou Moctar), the film is a collaborative fiction. Zerzura was developed with a Tuareg cast, and shot in and around Agadez, Niger. The film was produced over two trips to Niger. The first trip was spent collecting folktales, conducting interviews, and finding shooting locations (see the architecture of Not Vital). In June of 2016, I ran a “workshop” in Agadez, to develop, write, and shoot the resulting film.
The film is currently in post-production. Ideally Ahmoudou Madassane will join the process and visit Portland in the new year for final editing work, translation, and scoring. Stay tuned here as we bring you updates!
The first ever Tuareg language fictional film, based on the legendary rock-u-drama “Purple Rain,” Akounak or “Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red in it” explores the world of a musician trying to succeed in the raucous subculture of the Niger guitar scene. The protagonist, real life musician Mdou Moctar, must battle fierce competition from jealous musicians, overcome family conflicts, endure the trials of love, and overcome his biggest rival – himself. Carried by stunning musical performances from Mdou, the film is a window into modern day Tuareg guitar and an experiment in participatory ethnographic filmmaking.
The past year, the film has toured around the world at various screening and festivals. We got to travel around with the film and meet lots of folks. Mdou got to come to the US for the first time and present the film in New York. We had loads of unexpected press, and learned that blogs are still killing it. We’ve even got to organize a few screenings for celebrities (we’re not saying who). It’s been a fun, weird journey, and we’re excited to keep moving forward – thank you for the support!