Dir: Ulrike Koch. Switzerland/Germany/Netherlands 2004. 110mins.
Effectively an ethnographic documentary reinforced with a slender strand of narrative, Asshak is a generally engrossing portrait of the customs and beliefs of the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara. Given the current favour for films with an ethnographic and environmental slant, notably The Story Of The Weeping Camel and Atanarjuat The Fast Runner, Ulrike Koch's fascinating if somewhat unfocused film should find ample distribution channels and festival exposure, especially on a specialist circuit. Its readiest market, however, is likely to be among TV buyers.
Filming in the Air and Tenere regions of the Sahara, Koch concentrates on a number of individual characters. The narrative thread is provided by a man searching for his runaway camel, presumably the one seen insouciantly chomping a thorny tree in the opening shot. The most vocal figure is an elderly storyteller and singer who is the repository of lore that, by his own admission, may not be as reliable as it appears. A master of metaphor who spins a wonderful parable about truth and lies, he admits, "I constantly make up new stories, which become the truth."
Koch never intrudes either as narrator or interviewer. The only moment at which we are reminded of the crew's presence is a scene in which a man admits he is having trouble winding his turban, and a friend comments, "Then they ought not to film."
The range of observations on Tuareg life runs from the everyday to the philosophical. Especially striking is the predominant role of women in moving communities from place to place: one sequence shows a group of women constructing the mind-bogglingly intricate frames for their tents. More abstract insights include the definition of the elusive nature of Asshak itself - an ethical quality defined by one Tuareg commentator as "the deep respect for the rules of conduct" and involving religious conduct as well as a relationship to nature. But some New Age overtones suggest that there may at times be a touch of creative over-interpretation in the subtitles: you wonder whether an African marabout would really use a term translating as "positive energy".
Koch departs from documentary conventions in one sequence especially, where footage of ostriches and other creatures proves to be a dream of both cosmological and historical import. Animals are prominent throughout: the omnipresent camels consistently steal scenes, and are the subject of some vividly-told creation myths.
Presumably by deliberately policy, Koch tells us little about the contemporary situation of her subjects, and about whether modernity favours their survival. Similarly we are left to draw our own conclusions about the relationship between the Tuareg's Islamic faith and their older African structures of belief. Pio Corradi's cinematography is evocative, sometimes poetic in its vistas of sand and rock, but largely unvarnished. Asshak finally fails to sustain its running length, or to feel entirely distinctive, but overall it proves an informative, engaging and entirely unromanticising introduction to a people.
Production companies: Catpics AG, Pegasos Film, Artcam
Netherlands distribution: Contact Film
International sales: Catpics AG
Producer: Alfi Sinniger
Screenplay: Ulrike Koch
Cinematography: Pio Corradi
Editor: Magdolna Rokob
Music: Harry de Wit