Akounak: The feature film of a Tuareg guitarist in Agadez
Starring guitarist Mdou Moctar, Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (English: "Rain the Color of Blue with a little Red in it") is a feature length fiction film, shot entirely in Agadez, Niger with a local cast and crew. Akounak tells the universal story of a musician trying to make it "against all odds," set against the backdrop of the raucous subculture of Tuareg guitar. The protagonist, real life musician Mdou Moctar, must battle fierce competition from jealous musicians, overcome family conflicts, and endure the trials of love - all while coming to terms with one of the biggest barriers: himself.
The Tuaregs (or Kel Tamashek) are an ethnic and language group of traditionally nomadic people in the Sahara desert. Tuareg guitar music ("ishumar guitar") or so-called "desert blues" (popularized in the West through groups like Tinariwen and Bombino) began over thirty years ago as a folk expression of political rebellion. Today the style has become the de facto music of the desert. While the subject has been explored in documentary features, these are almost always aimed at Western audiences and betray a sensationalist tilt, focusing on the origins of the "rebel music" and not the contemporary subculture (a narrative reinvigorated by the ongoing crisis in the North of Mali).
Akounak is not a documentary, but a stylized fictional tale with a story developed by Tuareg youth, written and produced for a Tuareg audience. Stylistically based on the model of Western rock-u-drama, the story has been written from the common experiences faced by Mdou and fellow musicians. The goal is to create a compelling story that is relevant and watchable by the Tuareg community. Most importantly, Akounak will be the first fiction film ever shot in the Tuareg language. Subtitles will be available in English and French.
Both a homage to Purple Rain and The Harder They Come, Akounak is based on the universal hero, the struggle of a musician to overcome a series of conflicts. In execution, many techniques have been adapted from the Poverty Row, Italian Neo-Realism, and the experimental films of Jean Rouch, in particular Moi, Un Noir.
Since 2009, I've been writing about music and releasing records from the Sahel region of West Africa. Much of my job is to take material from one culture and present it to another. It provides a fascinating opportunity to experiment in the grey zones of cross cultural experience.
Digital filmmaking is allowing cheaper films to be made, but few films have been made in the Tuareg regions. Admittedly, there are a plethora of films concerning the Tuareg and Tuareg guitar, but nearly all are documentaries. Making a digital, low budget, fiction film, will not only provide a fascinating glimpse into the music scene in an experimental format, it could also resonate in the Tuareg community and inspire new low budget local creations. As I already work with musicians, the idea of a "musical" film seemed natural. By taking a story both universal and somewhat formulaic story to the Tuareg guitar milieu, we could create a groundbreaking film.
I first heard the music of Mdou Moctar on cellphones in the Sahara. In 2012, I visited Mdou at his home in Niger and recorded a full length album. A local star, his music had traveled throughout West Africa on cellphones, but as a musician, he remained somewhat unknown. Last year, Mdou moved to Agadez, a city full of guitarists and intense competition. A few months ago, I traveled there with Jerome Fino to begin shooting. Over three weeks, we shot some initial scenes and developed a treatment and assembled a cast and crew. Most importantly, we had the chance to develop the story together, to accurately reflect the realities of guitar music in Agadez.
In February we are returning to Niger to shoot the film. The shoot is scheduled for 10 days and will involve three principal actors and five bit parts. Large scenes will be recorded in real concerts and performances we will organize. Our crew is put together from local talented computer experts, wedding videographers, and sound engineers. The modest budget will cover travel expenses for myself and Jerome to Agadez. It will also include payment for all the crew, actors, and musicians.
In addition, budget includes daily expenses, costumes, food for all the actors, permits, and rental for certain scenes. Budget does not include gear, nor are we paying ourselves for any of the post production, promotion, etc. This is just the minimum cost of shooting the film (and fulfilling the subsequent rewards).
MDOU MOCTAR is the Protagonist and Principal Actor of the film. A Tuareg musician hailing from Azawagh in Northern Niger, Mdou is one of Niger's standout guitarists. Known for his unconventional style and original compositions, Mdou first album, a psychedelic electronic album of Tuareg guitar, became an instant success throughout the mp3 networks of West Africa. “Tahoultine,” one of the standout tracks was later featured on the compilations “Music from Saharan Cellphones."
JEROME FINO is the Director of Photography. A video artist based in Marseille (France), he’s developed films of artists and musicians through the series “Eyes for ears." His practice questions the public space and the soundspace via different approaches, echoing these words of John Cage “sound is enough? What do I need more?” Jerome Fino is part of the collective "L'improbable," working to organize events around contemporary musical practices.
CHRISTOPHER KIRKLEY is Director. A self described "guerilla ethnomusicologist", his research focuses on the Sahel of West Africa. His work examines contemporary popular musics in the evolving technological landscape, the interplay of local traditions with the transglobal, and experimentation in cultural exchange. He releases records under the label Sahel Sounds and maintains a blog exploring arts and music of the region.
Risks and challenges
The main challenge to the film is the location. West Africa, particularly in the North of Niger, is prone to unpredictability. The road to the North is spotty and bad, electricity is intermittent, actors take off and move, and security threats and concerns can shut down an operation.
What we're bringing to this project is experience. Mdou is from Niger, and is our groups main liaison on the project. Our crew and actors are all from Agadez. Christopher has lived and worked in the Sahel for over four years now. Jerome specializes in adhoc improvisation.
We chose Agadez out of all the desert cities for its lessened security risks. On the last visits, we acquired all the official permits and made friends with local authorities and embassy staff. We also had a chance to see what works and what doesn't.
The key now is preparation. The story has been developed with Mdou and local crew to ensure feasibility. The shooting schedule is well planned but flexible. The script is tight, but dialogue is open for interpretation by the actors. Above all, we're completely aware of the difficulties and are planning accordingly - so in the end, a movie will get made, whatever happens during the shoot.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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