Barefoot to Timbuktu begins with a man crossing a barren desert. Ernst Aebi is a Swiss-American free spirit who set out to explore the world and wound up becoming a hero, and friend, to the people of Araouane, a settlement in the middle of the Sahara. Aebi stayed for three years teaching the inhabitants how to plant, learn, and build their own buildings.
Martina Egi’s documentary focuses on the man himself, who lived as a painter and converter of lofts for a time in New York and had a daughter who was the first American woman to sail around the world. Through old news footage, interviews with Aebi, friends and family, and following him as he goes back to Araouane for the first time in twenty years (a civil war during the early 90s forced him to leave), Egi presents us with a man of incredible vision and love for human life.
He set out to empower people (one segment has him bringing his second wife to the settlement in order to show other women they can have more) as well as give them a real home with water, plants, and education. “Timbuktu” is also a testament to the fact that a life can change. Aebi at one point says he never thought of having children or being responsible for anyone but in a way, not only did he wind up with his own kids, but the people of the settlement became like family as well.
The documentary has very few moments of obstacles or conflict during the upheaval of the settlement and seems somewhat padded (maybe a “60 Minutes” segment would be a more apt medium for this story than an hour and a half documentary), but what keeps it going is this man’s spirit, determination, and caring for the people he has come in contact with. It’s a full life well worth getting to know.