At the finale of the film “Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai,” set in the Nigerien city of Agadez, musician and protagonist Mdou Moctar takes up his guitar and deftly immerses the viewer in his world: The “desert blues” style characteristic of the Sahel, a semi-arid region stretching from Senegal to Eritrea, transforms the guitar from a melodic to a percussion instrument such that one is snared in its yearning, palpable rhythm.
The film was screened last Tuesday in Rubenstein Library as part of Duke’s annual African Film Festival, which runs until March and consists of weekly screenings of critically-acclaimed movies from across the African continent. “Akounak” is the first Nigerien film screened at Duke as well as the world’s first Tuareg-language fictional film. It stars Mdou Moctar, a skilled guitarist who both commands the screen and enraptures live audiences. The film was inspired by Prince’s “Purple Rain,” and its title translates to “rain the color of blue with a little red in it,” since the Tuareg language does not have a word for “purple.” Like its source material, “Akounak” is a film that serves to mythologize, fictionalize and showcase the talents of its very real protagonist. Mdou Moctar struggles with the realities of a burgeoning romantic relationship, a conservative father who links music with moral disrepair and musicians envious of his talent and eager to outcompete him.
The film’s creator, Christopher Kirkley, is an ethnomusicologist who traveled to West Africa and compiled popular songs that were transmitted through cell phones and Bluetooth connections. Much of the Western Sahel lacks internet connection, and cell phone service is the primary means of sharing media. Since songs are traded between individuals, with one person sending a song to another, an excellent proxy of a musician’s success is the geographic scope of his music. While collecting music, Kirkley repeatedly came across the work of Mdou Moctar, whose songs had traveled across the desert from Mali to Niger. Moctar’s success was not unwarranted: he possesses a charisma and sense of genuineness that is evident through his music, which is defined by its sense of longing, nostalgia and emotional openness.
Mdou Moctar is as musically skilled as the enigmatic, eccentric Prince, and “Akounak” shares the same narrative framework as “Purple Rain,” but this is where the similarities end. “Akounak” uses its fictional plot to alter the Western perception of the Tuareg people. Much of the knowledge of this ethnic group is rooted in its violent political history, dominated by the presence of military coups and rebel militias. Modern coverage tends to focus on its current struggles with drought, ethnic conflict and the spread of jihad in the conservative Muslim region. Thus, “Akounak”’s Western-rooted narrative is not used to evoke sympathy for the Tuareg people or to foment a superficial sense of shared humanity in the style of many of the documentaries covering this region. Rather, the inspiration of Prince is simply used as a vehicle to emphasize both the musical talent of the Western Sahel as well as the distinctive culture of the Tuareg people. The Sahel is saturated with Hausa-language films from Nigeria, and “Akounak” seeks to inspire Tuareg-speaking filmmakers and pave the way for the establishment of a Tuareg film culture.
“Akounak” is by and large devoted to the celebration rather than the documentation of culture. The very first shots of the film convey the day-to-day life of the region with startling intimacy: The camera is mere inches away from Moctar’s face as he prepares himself for the day ahead, and we watch street vendors proclaim their colorful wares and the feet and hands of children as they tumble by. Much of the film is structured around the quotidian experiences of Moctar, as he composes and records music in his home, shares tea with friends and purchases a secondhand guitar. These events take place within the context of the desert, which is quite literally embedded in the construction of the city of Agadez as the dusty, red land merges into the rust-colored clay buildings. Shots of Moctar walking alone in desert and riding on his motorcycle with the blue and pink sky as his backdrop serve as the echo chambers for his musical performances.
Although the ishumar style of the Sahel is derived from American blues, it co-opts the guitar and gives it new purpose as a source of rhythm; its organic, open nature reflects the freedom of the desert. Nevertheless, Moctar’s voice alone is enough to carry his role as the protagonist. It’s endowed with a sense of yearning that makes his romantic character come to life and enriches his struggles to find acceptance from his father and foster a tender relationship with his girlfriend. Thus, “Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai” serves as an excellent start to the African Film Festival, allowing us to appreciate the wholly honest, unique nature of a culture through the celebration of an individual, going beyond the guise of shared humanity.