all gold everything

Before the Kickstarter finished, we left for Niger to shoot the footage that will eventually become the film “Akounak.” The windy season was fast approaching, which would be followed by a blistering hot season, followed by torrential rains. We acted quickly, shooting at breakneck speed over a mere ten days.

Work began immediately as we arrived in Agadez. There were a litany of problems that plagued us throughout the shoot – none of which are unique, as I’m assured they occur in every film production. But this particular project came with a caveat. The story was intended as collaboration and everything was subject to constant revision with input from cast and crew. Sets, designs, clothing, actors, and even the story itself was constantly rewritten during production. One scene calling for a marabout using evil gris-gris against the protagonist was deemed too controversial, and no one wanted to read for it. A hug was equally scandalous. Our lead actress stipulated she had to dress in brand new clothes and full makeup anytime she was filmed. As such, her character was rewritten to be very rich, with expensive habits.

Agadez is surrounded by Tuareg communities, but the Hausa language dominates, and by extension, Hausa film. Besides the more interesting aspects of the Hausa-Bollywood connection, Hausa films are stylized in their own manner. They are censored for controversial subject matter (both by filmmakers and an actual board of censors) and the stories unfold in soap opera settings. The protagonists dance through fancy houses with new furniture, beautiful gardens of manicured grass, and expensive neighborhoods with paved streets and luxury cars.

The tendency towards the luxurious was a common theme throughout the production. Often, locations did not correspond to my vision. When a house was deemed too small, we moved to a bigger one. When a sight was deemed unsightly, we covered it up. When children ran into the street, they were told to clear out. The day to day realities – the corner dusty boutique, the donkeys milling about dirt streets, the blown out amplifiers and bricolage guitars – were not considered the cinematic ideal. The scenes were not wholly natural, but artificial and idealized. Actors wore their best shirts and dresses. Sets would be cleared of all debris to appear flawless. Locations were chosen for their paved roads and new buildings. Once I tried to shoot a cluttered street of dirt and mud, trickles of sewage winding out of houses onto the road and garbage strewn about the alleyway. “Not there,” Moustapha said. “That’s dirty. Why would you shoot that?” It was a legitimate question. Equivalent, perhaps, to a Tuareg filmmaker coming to Portland to make a film about the noise scene, and stepping into my bathroom. While I had imagined that a film could both be a fictional tale and convey the ethnographic glimpse into the realities, the shoot seemed to lead us deeper into an ethnographic fiction.

While the film has just finished shooting and much work lies ahead in the laborious editing process, it remains to be seen just how much of “the real life” Agadez will come through. A better question to ask is whether it should. In adapting a film to Tuareg culture, we were not only re-creating a story, but adapting Western cinema itself. Relenting creative control of the project to the new representations that arrived was difficult at times, though necessary to create art that could exist outside of Western audiences. Perhaps where “Akounak” refuses to revel in the exotic culture of Agadez, it is also denying to film with the eye of the outsider and can speak much more eloquently about local fictions, idealized visions, and what Tuareg speaking cinema might look like.

rain the color of blue with a little red in it

A few years back, a friend and I were joking about the idea of adapting films to the Sahara. The buddy cop film in Nouakchott, the alien invasion of the Western Sahara. We eventually came to Prince’s 1984 epic rock-u-drama Purple Rain, which seemed the ideal model. The film is written around a musician. In some ways, it plays like a long music video. While some of the writing seems kitsch today, and riddled with clichés, the idea at the core – a fictional film very loosely based around the life and struggle of a musician – was a feasible project that could be possible.

Flashforward a few years, I began working with Mdou Moctar (the autotuned star of the Music from Saharan Cellphones compilations) and Jerome Fino of the French collective L’improbable to make this film a reality. Over three weeks in Niger, we started shooting, found a cast and crew, and most importantly, began rewriting the story from the perspective and experiences of Mdou and his fellow musicians. The resulting project that we’ve titled Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (English: “Rain the Color of Blue with a little Red in it”) is less a remake than a homage – a telling of a universal story. Akounak follows a fictional Mdou who has just moved to Agadez, and his struggle to become a star in the winner takes all scene of Tuareg guitar music. The movie is full of musical performance, and features a number of Agadez’s star musicians.

Akounak will have the honor of being the first ever movie shot in the Tuareg language (specifically, a mixture of dialects from Aïr and Azawagh). We want it to be a hit in the desert (we’ll release it as DVDs in Niger and as 3GP on cellphones). But it will also be one of the few fiction films concerned with the Tuareg music subculture. While Tuareg guitar has been explored somewhat exhaustively in documentary features, most of these films have focused on the political origins of the folk music – not how it thrives today. Like my friend Drew Wilson says, this film is not about Kalashnikovs but “cellphones, motorcycles, and guitars.”

The Kickstarter is now well under way, so we’ll be headed back next month to shoot the project. If we exceed the goal, we’ll be adding more rewards and goals – maybe a vinyl original soundtrack recording? Stay tuned.

mariam ahmed

Mariam Ahmed is a guitarist in Agadez, which in itself is not spectacular. With so many guitarists in the city, one needs not to search far. However, there are practically no female guitarists in Tuareg music and Mariam is perhaps one of a handful across the diaspora.

Tuareg guitar is largely a folk tradition of men. While not imposed by force, it is maintained by social norms of where the guitar appears. The long days of the ishumar, teapot slowly bubbling on coal, is a world segregated by gender. When guitar enters, it is in this male milieu (a world reflected in my recordings over the past years, which are mostly of male artists).

When I press her on the subject with a litany of thinly veiled questions about the gender dynamics of Tuareg guitar – “is it hard to be a female guitarist” – she simply shrugs and shakes her head. Later, Mdou posits that the bigger problem and prohibitions on playing music are class based – if family comes from a tradition of nobles and chiefs, or a religious lineage of marabouts. Mariam comes from neither, so can play shred in weddings.

I’m left expecting more, waiting for her to deliver some explanation. I begin to suspect that I’m more focused on this imagined conflict with a woman guitarist than anyone else. Later that evening, Mariam returns and we record three songs on her acoustic guitar. I finally stop asking questions and Mariam plays. She sings in a soft voice, carried by her acoustic guitar but with a driving pace. Part way through, the power cuts out and we’re left in total darkness. I can’t see anything. She keeps playing.

Mariam Ahmed (cover)