Local ethnomusicologist Christopher Kirkley’s first film was ambitious enough: Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai was a loose remake of Purple Rain, filmed in Niger, starring African songwriter/guitarist Mdou Moctar, and entirely in the Tuareg language. But for his second feature, Zerzura, Kirkley has gone even further—slipping a tab of Jodorowsky under his tongue and creating a strange, mystical road movie.
Zerzura is the name of a mythical city, a kind of El Dorado of West Africa that, according to folklore that has been handed down for centuries, boasts untold riches and is guarded by paranormal forces. In Zerzura, the city is the eventual destination of a nameless young man (Ahmoudou Madassane, guitarist for Mdou Moctar), who leaves his small, drought-stricken community to track down his brother.
What transpires is another variation of a classic hero’s journey, soundtracked by the bluesy licks of its lead actor. This gangly gent spends days walking through the desert, encountering all manner of trials and oddballs—like a gold-crazed dude living in a hole in the ground and a couple of gun-toting baddies—and aided on his quest by mystical good fortune and a magical dagger gifted to him by a mysterious old man.
The real magic of Zerzura is the rough-hewn charm of its creation and execution. Kirkley is still a novice behind the camera, but captures electrifying moments of tension and horror as this odyssey becomes more and more surreal. And the early moments of the film have a lovely ethnographic quality as we are allowed to look in on these desert dwellers as they fix each other tea, insisting that, no matter what the circumstances, things are good. From the looks of their humble lives, and their delight in simple pleasures, it becomes impossible to argue.