Introducing Moment of Truth: Movieline's Spotlight on Up-and-Coming Documentaries

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Welcome to the inaugural edition of Moment of Truth, a new weekly Movieline feature dedicated to the best in up-and-coming nonfiction cinema. This week we introduce you to Ernst Aebi (right), the subject of the new documentary Barefoot to Timbuktu, which opens today in NYC (with dates to come in Los Angeles and elsewhere). Please welcome him!

Manhattan has a club for pretty much everything and everyone, and on a recent freezing night uptown, the Explorer's Club hosted an event for one of its own. Two decades of Ernst Aebi's world travels had been gathered in a new documentary screening that evening, but this wasn't home-movie footage or amateur cell-phone video from the North Pole (which, yes, Aebi has also visited). This was the stirring, semi-crazy story of how he helped restore a remote Saharan village virtually from scratch -- and kind of by accident.

Barefoot to Timbuktu chronicles Aebi's time in Araouane, a once-prosperous water station located seven days (by camel) from the city of Timbuktu. Virtually abandoned by the region's former rulers -- whose slaves have been left behind to starve in the blank, destitute oasis -- Araouane became something of a mission for Aebi, whose initial visit over 20 years ago literally planted the seeds of a reborn community. In the decades since, war in Mali has made Araouane an even more difficult project for Aebi to uphold. (The film's title comes from the consequences of being robbed by Saharan bandits.) But as director Martina Egi shows, the former artist turned adventurer has just the right mix of purpose, will and not just a little insanity to make the resurrected village -- not to mention an entrancing feature-length documentary -- stand up on its own.

Movieline caught up with Aebi and Egi prior to this week's Explorer's Club screening of Barefoot to Timbuktu; the film opens today at the Quad Cinema.

Ernst, how would you characterize yourself and this mission to Araouane? Adventure? Humanitarianism? Hobby? None of the above?

Aebi: It's sort of evolved. By the time I was 16 or 17 I was already in every Western European country except for Portugal, Greece and Ireland. I used to go to the last day of school with my backpack and never go home. I just went directly on the road and put my thumb out. So that was sort of what I liked to do. Then I got married and had kids and was forced into the role of an armchair adventurer, chewing my fingernails and wondering how great it would if... You know. And that "if" came when the kids went off to college, and I could take off again. So I went and did Paris-Dakar to race across the Sahara. I felt like such an asshole doing this thing, because it was so wasteful and ridiculous. I just needed to save my soul after doing this frivolous thing, so I decided to get to know Africa better -- especially the Sahara. I fell in love with the Sahara even while we were racing across it.

So what better place to go but Timbuktu? It's considered the end of the world. I went with no maps or tourists -- beyond the end of the world, with camels. At one point we came to Araouane for water. It was horrible. People starving... every aspect of it was horrible. I thought, "It would be a good adventure to try to make a go of it." Not as a goody-goody helper or whatever. I thought it would be a great challenge and a fun adventure. In the beginning it was supposed to be like a week -- just to show them how to put seeds in the ground and grow vegetables. But they'd never seen vegetables or fruits. So after one month, I still can't leave. Two months? I still can't leave. Three months? I still can't leave. Three years later I was still there. It just happened.

How did you two meet?

Egi: Ernst wrote a book about this, and he and my boss went to school together. I got the book from my boss -- about this story in Araouane. Then I think I came to New York? Did we meet in New York?

Aebi: I don't think so.

Egi: Right. It was Switzerland. Then I came to New York to talk about the film. That was five years ago when the idea first came up.

Aebi: The way it went was that you told the producer about the idea, and he said, "Hey! I know this guy!" He and his wife bought a painting from me 25 years before. Then when they were in New York they contacted me. We went for drinks, and basically agreed this sounded great. And then there was an American outfit about 20 years before. They came to Araouane; they wanted to do something for 60 Minutes. A whole bunch of circumstances didn't work out, and it was never used. Martina was able to get this footage in order to do a before-and-after thing -- which of course makes it a lot more interesting.

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