Now in its twelfth year, Washington University's African Film Festival is one of the lesser-known events on the annual cinematic calendar, but it's always rewarding. The festival, staged by the Program in African and African American Studies, the Film and Media Studies department and the African Students Association, offers three days of free (yes, free!) screenings from parts of the world rarely represented on U.S. movie screens. One of this year's highlights is a film I've been wanting to see since I first heard about it two years ago, the first narrative film ever made featuring the Tuareg community of Sahara Niger, with dialog in the Tamasheq dialect.
The feature debut of American-born director/ethnomusicologist Christopher Kirkley, the film originally titled Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai has been given the long-winded English translation Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It. Once you realize that there's no Tamasheq word for purple, you'll get a better idea of Kirkley's inspiration. Nigerian musician Mdou Moctar wears a long purple coat, rides around the village on his purple motor bike and, left-handed Fender in hand, struggles to rise to the top of the competitive Tuareg guitar scene.
There's no Tuareg equivalent for Apollonia 6 performing "Sex Shooter" in lingerie, and the trance-like polyrhythmic takamba music won't be confused with "Let's Go Crazy," but such quibbles aside, Kirkley's film is a worthy tribute to Prince's 1984 feature film debut, capturing much of its charm and rebellious spirit. Akounak remains thematically faithful to both the dramatic elements of Purple Rain (there's a stern father who doesn't approve of guitar playing and a rival musician with just a touch of Morris Day's hep-cat looniness) and its '80s space age/New Wave design, as jarring against the background of the Sahara as it was against the chilly landscape of Minneapolis.
Moctar is a talented musician, and gradually becomes enough of a presence that you stop missing his lack of bad-boy playfulness and become involved in the music and the rich cultural landscape. In its no-frills authenticity, Akounak evokes another film that borrowed genre elements to introduce a vibrant musical scene: Perry Henzell's 1972 The Harder They Come, a slim outlaw story that helped introduce Jimmy Cliff and reggae to much of the world.
The familiar plot becomes a simple structure to keep the film moving, but the music, the performers and the filmmaker's passion provide the energy. It's quite an experience, a border-dissolving musical that unites the styles and sounds of three decades and two continents, paying a fitting tribute to a musical legend (it's worth noting that the film was released in 2015, before Prince's death) even as it introduces a very different but no less lively new music to the rest of the world.