'Purple Rain' Falls on the Sahara in Brilliant African Adaptation

How an American transplant and a desert guitar hero remade Prince's film in the middle of Niger

Mdou Moctar plays himself in 'Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai,' an African adaptation of 'Purple Rain.' Credit: Jerome Fino

In one of the most memorable scenes from Purple RainPrince takes his new-in-town romantic interest for a walk in the Minnesota countryside. As the woman (played by singer and model Apollonia Kotero) opens up about her showbiz dreams, the hero makes her stand scantily clad in the cold, asking her questions like, "Does that turn you on?" When she asks for help, he tells her no – not until she passes an initiation that involves skinny-dipping in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. (He neglects to mention that the body of water that they're standing next to is not said lake.)

When Christopher Kirkley, an itinerant label owner most often based in Portland, and Mdou Moctar, a Tuareg guitarist whose Auto-Tuned tracks once went viral across the Sahara, decided to adapt Purple Rain and relocate the story in Agadez, Niger, they faced two years of strange hiccups and previously unconsidered questions. Beyond logistical issues, what should they call even call the thing, considering that Tamashek, the Tuareg language, doesn't include a word for Prince's signature color? They ultimately settled on Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai: "Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red In It." (The film opens at the Anthology Film Archives in New York today.)

As far as the Lake Minnetonka scene, the crew had to deal with both Apollonia's nudity and the fact that Prince is, well, kind of a jerk. "We had to tone that down a lot," says Kirkley. "We would sit around in the evening talking with Mdou and his friends. Little by little they'd nix ideas, saying, 'No, we can't film that.' Or 'Oh, we gotta put this in!'"

Kirkley moved to West Africa not long after graduating from Oregon State, where he studied biology and feared that a career in music had passed him by. Landing on an unfamiliar continent, he set about trying to – as he puts – "record something important." With no contacts, this involved moving from town to town with a guitar of his own. If an artist flagged him down, they'd jam and talk music, usually in French; if he heard a cassette, he'd attempt to track down the player behind it.

Moctar was an exception: As the ex-pat traveled, he repeatedly heard the singer's blasted-out take on local Tuareg guitar music – the spacey rock fusion of acts like Tinariwen and Bombino – coming through the tinny speakers of Bluetooth-enabled cell phones. "Little by little people are getting more internet access," Kirkley explains. "But at the time music was traveling around literally by peer-to-peer transfers: Someone would have a song on their phone, take it to another phone, send it. That person would travel on a bus to another town and send it to their friends there. I've dropped off music in Niger and found that same song in Mauritania. It had made its way 1000 kilometers."

Kirkley released his first compilation of music found on such phones in 2010, and in 2013 he approached Moctar with the idea of remaking Purple Rain, a feat of cultural translation that he now describes as a "hair-brained scheme." Moctar didn't know much about Prince, but as soon as he watched the movie, he began thinking up ideas. "I picked Mdou because of who he was and how he played and our relationship, that I could sort of joke around with him," says Kirkley. "And he seemed like he'd be up for the complexities and the problems that we'd encounter."

After the duo and their co-writer Jerome Fino figured out the Lake Minnetonka scene – it now takes place in the desert and involves the threat of bugs – they began to work on casting. The first hurdle: No one had ever made a Tuareg feature film, so few locals knew much about acting. Moreover, most of the potential Apollonias were skeptical about being filmed – it didn't help that the original candidate got married and moved to Libya in between pre-production and the shoot.

Kirkley aimed to make Akounak a mostly-accurate depiction of life in the region: A fight between Moctar and his on-screen parents hints at a generational disdain toward careers in music, and when one of the musician's songs is played early on, a character asks if he's the guy from the cell phones. Many of these details came directly from first-timers like Rhachia Ibrahim, the woman's replacement, who offered a cool, understated performance despite having never acted before. "We didn't have scripted lines that people needed to say," says Kirkley. "We gave them the ideas at every scene and then the scenes were improvised. It was sort of reverse filmmaking: In post-production we had to go back and translate everything from Tamashek into English to then edit it."

This approach worked in part because the crew was so prepared, but when it came to the mother, even the filmmaker admits that they all got a little lucky. "She was cast during that moment," he says. "They sent a kid across the street to the neighbor, just randomly, and we shot all the scenes with her in 10 minutes. They were explaining to her, 'Don't look at the camera.' There were a bunch of boom mics and cameras, and she said, 'I don't even know which ones are the cameras!' Then she gave probably the best performance of the movie."

This Nigerian crew, mostly friends of Kirkley and Moctar, also proved essential for seemingly simple tasks like filming in public. Had a white American like Kirkley operated the camera himself, too much commotion would have ensued. "There's a certain suspicion," he explains. "Like, 'Oh, you're gonna take this thing back and sell it and make a lot of money.'"

This hasn't happened yet, and even when the DVDs go on sale at the website of Kirkley's label, Sahel Sounds, windfall profits seem unlikely. Meanwhile, both Kirkley and Moctar have been surprised by how quickly the film has raised the profile of the 28-year-old guitarist: This summer, he begins his fourth tour of Europe, then crosses the Atlantic for a few shows in Canada.

Back in Niger, however, Moctar was already drawing enough fans to occasionally interfere with his star turn. Like Purple Rain, Akounak climaxes during an onstage battle of the bands between the hero and his real-life rival. The filmmakers advertised the event on the radio, but when word spread, the purpose became obscured. "People thought it was a real competition and the crowd got really rowdy cheering for Mdou," says Kirkley, who ended up booking the venue for a second night. "Everybody rushed the stage, and there were too many people up there for us to shoot. We had to try to turn it down so people knew that it was actually a film."