Zerzura (Christopher Kirkley with Rhissa Koutata and Ahmoudou Madassane, 2017)
The snaking, reverb-laden guitar lines that open Zerzura seem designed to conjure forth magic onto the screen. The film, a self-styled “acid western,” is a decidedly low-budget, homemade collaboration between Christopher Kirkley (founder of the record label Sahel Sounds) and the musicians Rhissa Koutata and Ahmoudou Madassane (who also serves as lead actor), and it locates that magic in the sweeping desert landscapes and stunning vernacular architecture of Niger. The title refers to a legendary lost city, which Madassane’s character, a Tuareg shepherd living peacefully far outside the city of Agadez, sets out to find. The plot—a composite of folktales from the region—provides a minimal framework for a series of dreamlike images and sounds that blend the ancient with the modern, the rural with urban, and the acoustic with the electric. Like Kirkley’s previous film project, an Agadez-set remake of Purple Rain starring the stunningly talented Mdou Moctar as a North African Prince, Zezura is driven by its soundtrack. Madassane, who plays rhythm guitar in Moctar’s band, composed this film’s music, a heady blend of dusty folk idioms and blazing psychedelic guitar. It’s based in sounds typical of the Sahel, an arid (though musically fertile) region stretching across North Africa—encompassing Niger, Mauritania, Mali, and Sudan—which is home to numerous stateless, nomadic tribes, including the Tuareg. For this Film Comment Playlist, Madassane’s soundtrack yields a jumping-off point for a surface-scratching survey of music from the region, including a number of selections from releases on Kirkley’s label; classics from legends Baaba Maal, Ali Farka Touré, and Tinariwen; and searing contemporary takes on the Sahel sound from artists like Group Doueh, Noura Mint Seymali, Group Inerane, and Rhissa Koutata’s own killer group, Koudede.
Zerzura is out now on DVD from Sahel Sounds.
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Clinton Krute is Film Comment’s digital editor.