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In search of the lost city of Zerzura

Zivile Raskauskaite
May 12, 2017

"Zerzura" is a feature film about a man's search for a mythical lost city. In a conversation with InfoMigrants, the film's director, Christopher Kirkley says that the film was inspired by the current migration crisis.

Afrika Flüchtlinge in der Sahara
Image: C. Kirkley
Afrika Flüchtlinge in der Sahara
Image: C. Kirkley

Agadez, in central Niger, is a starting point of the perilous voyage to Europe or America for many African migrants. It has become a hub of hope and desperation for people attempting to cross the vast Sahara desert to reach Libya and cross over to Europe or America.

The constant atmosphere of movement and the stories told by people risking everything they own inspired Christopher Kirkley, an experimental anthropologist from Portland, Oregon, to make "Zerzura," which in Arabic means the "oasis of little birds" and refers to a lost city, first mentioned in the 15th century.

According to legend, it is a magical place, a city of treasures, guarded by supernatural forces. In the 20th century, real searches for this legendary oasis took place. However, to this day, Zerzura has not been found.  

The film is a collaborative work of fiction, written and developed with a Tuareg cast, and shot in and around Agadez. The story follows a young man from Niger who leaves home in search of an oasis. His path leads him into a surreal vision of the Sahara, a journey that crosses with djinn, bandits, gold seekers, and migrants.

Christopher Kirkley, spoke to DW about the inspiration behind the film.

You introduce yourself as an experimental anthropologist. How did you become interested in filmmaking?

I work in a lot of different roles but primarily I work with music and culture in the Sahara, West Africa. I am also interested in how we can tell stories through culture and how as a westerner I can look at and learn about things. In some way, it is anthropology.

In another way, it’s just learning about people through the culture and bridging a gap between such radically different places. A lot of work is just an extension of my own desire to understand the place through what is accessible. And music and cinema these are ways into something that you can’t understand when you are an outsider. 

Why did you decide to name your film Zerzura?

Afrika Flüchtlinge in der Sahara
Kirkley (center) producing the film in AgadezImage: C. Kirkley

During my time in West Africa, I spent a lot of time in the Sahara. I was traveling around, taking buses back and forward from Bamako to Gao, traveling to Agadez in Niger. During these experiences, particularly traveling North, I would find myself always around many migrants who headed to the Sahara and then to Libya, Europe, America.

Talking to them I started to hear a lot of mythic stories about where I was from. Sayings like "I want to go to America and this is what America is" sounded that they were talking about a mythical place, it didn’t sound like a real place. There were so many hopes and so many exaggerations about what people would find in Europe, or what they would find in America, or how easy it would be to get there.

And so I came to this idea of working on a film but using fiction to talk about this idea. I felt that fiction would be a good way to explore this theme rather than directly talk about people trying to go to Europe. 

Could you tell a little more who is the main character in your film and how is his story related to the real life in Agadez?

Our protagonist is a Tuareg man from Agadez. In the story he is a nomad, he lives in the village and leaves the village to go to the city in search of his brother who has gone to the city. When he arrives at the city he learns that his brother has taken off to look for this lost magic city. He starts following him. While he travels he meets the bandits, he meets people who are looking for gold in the desert, he also encounters djinns and magical things are happening.

All things worked out themselves into the film because they all are a present phenomenon and currently happening in or around Agadez. There is a movement of many Tuareg people to go to Libya. Agadez is a city that was exposed to so much migration over the past couple decades and it seems that every young person I know there has a friend who is involved in migration services. Whether it is driving people or housing them. It became a part of the economy in Agadez.

What was the most challenging when shooting a film?

It was a hot season. It was 120 degrees during the day. We shot real people looking for gold. We had some strange moments there. We were shooting in the desert. While shooting a scene about bandits actually real people come, who wanted to rob us. I think a lot of the elements of the film were really close to reality. Sometimes too close.

How was the myth about Europe created in Agadez?

People want to go to America, Europe, Libya. There are a lot of young people trying to get there. I think there is a family pressure, people are saying, "You are a young man, you have to travel." Young women as well but I feel a lot of young men from rural areas are been pushed to travel.

There are also stories that come back. People who have gone to Europe call back to their families and explain how they are doing. They don’t want to talk about how they are suffering so they tend to exaggerate and say that things are good and they are doing really well. It creates a cycle: more people hear those stories and more people want to go.

Are people not afraid of dangers on the way to Europe?

For example in Gao or Agadez, there are a lot of posters up about the dangers of migration trying to stop people from traveling. But a lot of young people I talked to, tend to think that it’s not going to happen to them or that the risk doesn’t really matter because what they are risking for is something so great that it is worth to risk.

I don’t want to criticize the movement, but I think there should be more work to inform people what happens when you come to Europe. Not that the Trans-Saharan transition is difficult, that taking a boat is dangerous but what happens when you get there. It’s not going to be so easy. Many people are aware of the dangers and risks of the desert crossing and the Mediterranean crossing, but not that many people are aware of what really happens when you get to Europe. No one has thought beyond that point.

How do people imagine Europe or America in Agadez?

There isn’t much of an idea. Sometimes it lands up to the most outrageous claims. For example, people hear that there are ATM machines. I had some people to tell me that there are these machines that give you money whenever you need it. It is so exaggerated but if you are talking to someone who is from a very rural area they don't really have any conception of it, they might anticipate that.

Other people, the young people working in Agadez, they just say that there is work that they can do in Agadez, in the black market, some sort of undocumented work, so they anticipate they are going to do the same thing in Europe. If they go there, they will figure out a way to make it work. 

Zerzura is a fiction film but also an allusion to reality. Do you think it reveals more than a documentary film?

At one point I wanted to make a film just about migrants. I visited them. I went to some of the houses where they were staying. But in their stories there is a lot of desperation.

By the time people reach Agadez they have already gone through maybe 20 police checkpoints in Niger, where in every police checkpoint they are getting money taken. They cross a lot of borders.

And all I saw in Agadez were people so beaten down that I could not ask them to participate in the film. It felt too serious.

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