A look at the Swiss-American explorer, adventurer, artist, loft renovator, author and desert gardener Ernst Aebi, "Barefoot to Timbuktu" darts around as nimbly as its subject.

A look at the Swiss-American explorer, adventurer, artist, loft renovator, author and desert gardener Ernst Aebi, “Barefoot to Timbuktu” darts around as nimbly as its subject, anchored only by a small Sahara Desert outpost 170 miles from Timbuktu. Though documaker Martina Egi explores numerous aspects of Aebi’s varied career, illustrated with his paintings, magazine artwork and fancifully decorated Soho buildings, it is Aebi’s revival of an ancient Mali village that holds pride of place here. This German-language, globe-trotting character study opened Feb. 12 at Gotham’s Quad Cinema and will likely dock on cable.

Docu sticks fairly closely to its septuagenarian subject, as Aebi putters around his Soho digs, recalling the highly lucrative loft-renovation gigs that he and best friend/partner Fritz Gross fell into in the 1970s. Otherwise, he is seen fishing, playing poker, drinking beer with his Swiss brothers or simply entertaining his washboard band-playing friends and family at his Vermont farm. All four of his kids show up at one point or another throughout the course of the film, though it’s chip-off-the-old-block Tania — whose record-setting circumnavigation of the earth by sailboat, at age 18, is referenced here in newsreel footage — who figures most prominently.

Of Aebi’s own restless peregrinations, helmer Egi shows virtually nothing that does not relate directly to his ambitious African project. In 1987, Aebi became fascinated with the idea of transforming the dying village of Araouane, and poured three years and endless personal resources into building a school, a small hotel and miraculous gardens in the desert, teaching villagers to grow produce with the help of solar panel-powered water pumps.

Copious 1989 coverage, professionally shot by Bill Rosser for a documentary that was never completed, showcases the lush greenery among the dunes as villagers diligently tend the stone-enclosed terraced gardens. The footage also reveals the deep affection between Aebi and the villagers, as well as Aebi’s unfortunate tendency — remarked upon by his second wife, Emilie, who often accompanied him — to arrogantly and aggressively assume he always knows what is best.

Indeed, with his German accent, windblown appearance, wanderlust and obsession with impossible quests, Aebi often uncannily resembles that cinematic visionary/slavedriver Werner Herzog. One cannot but wonder what a Herzog docu on the subject of Aebi would look like.

Civil wars forced Aebi out of Araouane. “Barefoot” chronicles Aebi’s return to the village after an absence of almost two decades, now escorted by a truck full of armed militia, with no idea of what he might find.

Tech credits are aces, with archival and present-day footage equally evocative of the beauty of the desert.

Barefoot to Timbuktu: Ernst Aebi -- Come Hell or High Water

Docu - Switzerland

Production

A Mesch & Ugge Filmproduktionen production. (International sales: Accent Films, Montreux, Switzerland.) Produced by Beat Hirt. Directed by Martina Egi.

Crew

Camera (color, 16mm, HD), Frank Messmer, Bill Rosser; editor, Christian Mueller; sound (Dolby Digital), Floran Flossmann, Rolf Buttikofer, Gab von Dettre; sound designer, Roberto Filaferro. Reviewed on DVD, New York, Feb. 5, 2010. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

(German, English, French dialogue)
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