Sometimes all a leisurely, low-impact doc needs is a winning personality to make it work—though that can only take it so far. Irrepressible, silver-maned Renaissance man Ernst Aebi is a Swiss artist turned Soho loft restorer turned independent man of means. Filmmaker Martina Egi dabs at a portrait of this gallivanting adventurer, focusing on his audacious late-’80s rehabilitation of a desert village near Timbuktu. Like a good after-dinner story, the film’s charm comes from casual storytelling, enhanced by gently barbed interviews with Aebi’s family and ex-wife. The National Geographic vistas of sandy dunes, silhouetted trees and affable natives don’t hurt, either, sweetly juxtaposed with a card game between brothers back in Appenzell, Switzerland.
Yet the movie is too loose for its own good. Interwoven archival footage helps chronicle how this Johann-of-all-trades landed in Mali in the first place, but the picture of his history feels naggingly incomplete (sometimes inexplicably so: Why gloss over his racing in the Paris-Dakar rally?). Aebi’s accomplishments sound extraordinary—under his guidance, the village built wells, gardens and a school—and the locals’ admiration for his leadership is evident. But once Egi has made these points, the rest of the film comes across as feature-length padding—though it’s almost worth it for the story behind the titular bare feet.