In 1966, Swiss painter Ernst Aebi moved to the U.S. and began making money off his Bosch-on-acid nightmare drawings, then made a great deal more buying and refurbishing Soho lofts. When life got too comfortable, he began traveling, eventually ending up in Araouane, a small village in Mali’s Sahara desert. What began as a brief visit ended up as a three-year sojourn, with Aebi bringing in solar panels for water pumps, planting vegetation, and generally attempting to make the impoverished citizens economically self-sufficient.
Martina Egi’s documentary combines footage from the ’80s with interviews and archival footage of Aebi’s artist days, his first trip to the desert, and his return to Araouane years later, to see if what he’d left had prospered. There’s some mildly interesting ethnographic footage here, and Aebi is an engagingly blustery presence. Egi briefly addresses the implications of what could be deemed cultural colonialism (Aebi has a bad habit of yelling at the locals when they don’t do what he wants in the ostensible name of their own self-interest). But the result is oddly lackluster: By the time Aebi is arguing with the locals about where the living room in a sand-covered building used to be, you realize that the intensity he feels for the place hasn’t transferred to the movie at all.