“Zerzura” is a feature length film shot in the Sahara desert. Mixing folktales and documentary, 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. A folktale transposed onto an acid western, the film is a collaborative fiction, written and developed with a Tuareg cast, and shot in and around Agadez, Niger.
Over the past decades, Agadez has reestablished itself as a hub of movement across the desert. Migrants throughout the continent stop here on their perilous trek North, bound for mythic cities in Europe. Tales of gold in the desert abound, and men sell their houses for gold detectors. Young Tuareg leave home to seek their fortune in the fractured Libyan state. As people leave, stories return, becoming folklore, apocryphal and wildly exaggerated versions of truth.
In the style of “ethnofiction” proposed by Jean Rouch, "Zerzura" is a window into Saharan dreams and imagination, a folktale about the universal drive to search for something that we know is likely false and unwavering faith in the face of realism. In an American-Tuareg production, a script written and developed collaboratively and largely improvised performances, the film plays with mutual exoticism to create a trans-cultural fiction. "Zerzura" asks "what we are looking for in the desert, and what do we meet in these empty places?"
"I shall continue to think that Zerzura is one of the many names that have been given to the many fabulous cities which the mystery of the great North African desert has for ages created in the minds of those to whom it was hardly accessible." Reginald Bagnold, March 1937
The story of Zerzura first appears in the Kitab Al Kanuz (“Book of Hidden Treasures”), a mysterious 13th century lost manuscript. Translated as the “oasis of little birds,” it is a magical place, a city of treasures, guarded by supernatural forces. There is no further mention until 1835, when European Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson discovers yet another account from the Emir of Benghazi. The "Zerzura Club" is formed, and there is feverish exploration throughout the 1920s to find the lost city.
In the Aïr, the name “Zerzura” is known as a nameless but dangerous oasis. The first written account comes from 1902, of an “enchanted oasis…belong[ing] to the genii” with "golden domes and minarets” and "inhabited by women more beautiful than houris,” of which only one man has ever returned.
To this day, Zerzura has not been found.
In the past years, while traipsing about the Sahara, one of the most frequent conversations is about place, the ubiquitous “West.” The thoughts and expectations of America (or Europe) are mythic, fantastical, and loaded with exoticism. I began to speculate the stories were not about "the West" at all. It was in this research that I came across the story of Zerzura - a myth has persisted over the centuries in mistranslation between cultures.
I wanted to create a real search for Zerzura. In a land of open deserts and lawless borderlands, the genre style of "Western" seemed a natural model. But we also wanted to incorporate the rich folklore and supernatural stories that permeate everday life. While researching locations, I encountered the surreal structures of Swiss artist NOT VITAL, hulking architectural wonders that surround Agadez. We used these constructions as an inspiration and backdrop to imagine and journey into the fantastic.
In February 2016 I traveled to Agadez to research Zerzura. Over two weeks, I interviewed dozens of participants about local folklore (Tuareg, Hausa, Zarma). I interviewed migrants, smugglers, gold prospectors, musicians, artists, and actors about their experiences and ideas.
In June 2016, I returned to Agadez for one month. Hosting a workshop with co-producers Ahmoudou Madassane, Guichene Mohamed, and Rhissa Koutata, we developed a script and storyboard. The images were shot over two weeks with a cast of non-actors. Much of the filming was improvisational. The film was shot in Aïr Tamasheq dialect of Northern Niger.
Everyone brought our own inspirations to this film project. During our workshop, we watched films from Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jim Jarmusch, and Sergio Leone. I was inspired in process by the film work of Maya Deren, Robert Gardner, and Jean Rouch. Stylistically, the film exists between cultures. The execution is experimental, but the finished film will be a story driven genre picture.
Pledges go towards post-production costs. It is essential that we maintain the participatory nature of the process. The footage has been shot but it has yet to be edited. The first cut will be sent back to our team in Niger, who will record and design sound for the film. In addition, Ahmoudou Madassane will create an original score.
Note: suffice to say, this is co-production, and any profit from this campaign and final film are split with our Nigerien partners.
CHRISTOPHER KIRKLEY is an experimental anthropologist, sound recordist, and filmmaker. Christopher explores culture through collaborative media productions. Working on SAHEL SOUNDS since 2009, a music project and record label focused on the Sahel of West Africa, he has released over 35 albums. Christopher directed AKOUNAK TEDALAT TAHA TAZOUGHAI (2015), a feature length Tuareg language homage to Purple Rain. He also recently worked on the afro-futurist exhibtion/vinyl record/photo booklet UCHRONIA: THE UNEQUIVOCAL INTERPRETATION OF REALITY (2015), documenting an alternate reality of Bamako where Mali discovered America. Christopher’s films have been featured at festivals in the U.S. and around the world, including Anthology Film Archives, Singapore International Film Fest, Cinemagic, Pesaro, and more. His work has appeared in The New York Times, NPR, the Village Voice, The Wire Magazine, and VICE.
Collaborating artist AHMOUDOU MADASSANE is a musician who plays in the guitar tradition of Tuareg folk music from the Sahara. He is a member of the musical group of Mdou Moctar, and has toured extensively throughout the world. Since 2014 he has worked with Sahel Sounds on a variety of projects. Ahmoudou had his acting debut in 2015, playing a major role in AKOUNAK TEDALAT TAHA TAZOUGHAI. Ahmoudou is based in Agadez, Niger.
Risks and challenges
There are always risks to making films - however the hardest part has been completed (a very difficult shoot in searing 120 degree temperatures and intermittent dust storms!) The objective is now to maintain a very clear process driven post production. Ideally this will involve bringing at least one of the production team to Portland to edit the project together. The biggest challenge is the aesthetic - to create a film that will resonate with both cultures.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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