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Martina Egi Ventures into the Sahara in “Barefoot to Timbuktu”

Martina Egi Ventures into the Sahara in "Barefoot to Timbuktu"

Martina Egi’s debut documentary “Barefoot to Timbuktu” tells the story of Ernst Aebi, a Swiss-American artist, who in the 1980s set out on a journey in the Sahara where he stumbled upon Araouane, a historical settlement in the desert, where he settled and strove to improve living conditions for the people there before being forced to leave when war broke out in Mali in the early 90s. The film chronicles Aebi’s journey as he returns to Araouane twenty years later to discover a vastly different place than the one he left behind. indieWIRE invited Egi to speak about her film via email.

Martina Egi on her background and documentary “Barefoot to Timbuktu”…

After finishing Business school in Switzerland, I went to England as an au-pair. I instantly fell in love with British TV, which was so much better than the stuff we are used to in Continental Europe. Especially the commercials. Creativity and humor – just incredible! I decided to attend a filmschool and later got a first job with Swiss National Television. In 1999 I joined Mesch & Ugge, a small film production company. We are a team of five people, kind of a family. Basically we specialize in documentaries with a neo-historic background. After over 15 years in business, doing all sorts of jobs needed within a small production team, I got the chance to plan and direct my own documentary, my first. It’s like a dream come true. I’m very happy about the success we are enjoying in Switzerland. And now, of course, I’m curious to see how American audiences react to “Barefoot to Timbuktu.”

I was initially attracted by a book in a second hand bookstore in Greenwich Village, with a photo of a village drowning in sand on the cover and the promising title “Seasons of Sand“ (published by Simon & Schuster in 1993). Through it, I got to know Ernst Aebi’s incredible story. You know, I always have been fascinated by the Sahara; at times it almost became an obsession for me to go there. I immediately saw the film before my eyes. And after contacting the author, I was sure: this is it! It can be done! It has to be done! Maybe also because “can’t be done” is not available in Ernst Aebi’s vocabulary.

Among many other things, he told me of an earlier effort by an American filmmaker, who twentysomething years ago had tried to turn his intense Sahara adventure into a documentary. To good to be true! Even some footage existed, shot by this guy, Bob Marty, a New York filmmaker. He went to the Sahara with his crew when Aebi worked there in the late Eighties. And the best thing for me was: Bob Marty’s material had never been used.

With my camera crew I filmed in New York, on Aebi’s farm in Vermont and in Curaçao, to document a trip with his famous “sailing expert“ daughter Tania. In Switzerland we followed Aebi’s family and childhood roots. And – most important – together we finally went back to “his” village in the Sahara,

Aebi’s amazing story simply calls for success. All I wanted, was to make a popular and attractive documentary. Something the audience can relate to. Something that also is true to Aebi’s ideas. He certainly is different. A different type of adventurer. He does not want to be called an “aid worker“ or something like that. His goal was to help, yes. But at the same time he wanted to enjoy what he did. It was something he also did for himself.

Egi on the challenges she faced developing the project on how the financing for the film came together…

As perfect as Bob Marty’s 16mm-material was, which he shot 20 years ago in Araouant, it has never even been edited or synchronised. Production details such as shot lists were missing. Sound and pictures were on diffrent tapes. The soundman had his own way to record sounds and interviews. It has taken weeks to get behind this man’s secrets. And certain interviews were never found. But in the end we are very grateful for the fantastic pictures we got from Bob Marty’s archive.

And of course, the military escort was something special, too. To see the wild bunch with all the weapons, sitting on this pickup truck! All I could do was to include them in the film. As part of today’s reality when you go to the Sahara.

Switzerland is a small country: 7 million people, four national laguages. It is obvious we only can play our films to limited audience capacities. Being able to break into foreign markets, is diffucult and costly. Some financial support is provided by the Swiss governement. And because Swiss National Television is eager to have access to independent films, focussing on Swiss objects or subjects, we also get money from TV. Ernst Aebi is both Swiss and American. He was born an raised in Switzerland. As a young painter her came to New York and was one ot the leading artists to turn SoHo into an “art town.”

On her creative influences and aspirations…

It was Beat Hirt, my producer, who always kept telling me, one day I would direct a docmentary for the big screen. Now that this day has come, the screen is even bigger than I possibly could expect. I think the producer is pretty excited, too. To have a film out in the US certainly is the ambition of every European filmmaker.

Ernst Aebi was a lucky shot for us. A strong personality, going through a thrilling string of adventures. A fascinating story, with an ending surprising not only to the protagonist, but also the audience. I’m sure, that there are many other stories like this one around. I would love to do another portrait about another memorable person like Aebi. I love to do portraits.

My next project is something completely different to “Barefoot to Timbutktu”: the true story of a small Swiss village, where half of the farmers died in an plane crash, leaving behind over 52 orphans. It happend in the mid-sixties. So fifty years have gone by.

Egi on what it means to be an independent filmmaker…

Independent films have a long tradition in Switzerland. Documentaries are very popular. More popular than in any other country. Most producers run small companies, making one film per year, or less.

As I said earlier “Barefoot to Timbuktu” is my first Documentary as a director. I’d never been in Africa before. Filming in Timbuktu and out in the desert was not always easy. Being the only woman among 20 men, in the middle of the Sahara, was tough. When it’s hot, people tend to get lazy. That’s normal. And I was trying to get extra shots and better shots. Luckily everything went well. Seeing the images on the big screen, makes me really proud.

“Barefoot to Timbuktu” opens February 12 at the QUAD Cinema in New York City.

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