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When the late Ottawa filmmaker Frank Cole set out to cross the Sahara Desert, he didn't use a four-wheel drive. He climbed onto a camel.

The result is Life Without Death, a feature-length documentary about Cole's lonely trip in 1989-1990 from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

"He wanted to do it the old way," said film producer Francis Miquet, interviewed after a press screening. "The film is very much Frank's vision."

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Cole, 46, returned last fall to North Africa and was slain by bandits near the start of an even tougher feat: crossing the Sahara in both directions.

The death occurred in mid-October in Mali, about 75 kilometres east of Timbuktu.

"It was an area he'd been warned not to travel in," said Miquet. "His luck ran out."

The movie, praised at festivals, will be shown in theatres in some Canadian cities including Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal and Winnipeg.

Cole's family and friends didn't learn of his death until recently. There's no reference to it in the movie, which deals only with the initial hazardous crossing.

In the documentary, Cole is seen travelling by camel: He used more than half a dozen, buying a fresh one whenever an animal was too worn out to continue.

Usually, Cole is accompanied by a guide for protection against attackers. His voice-over explains, "In the Sahara, all people travel together, for security."

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The 11-month journey began Nov. 29, 1989, with Cole travelling through Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan, often passing through civil or tribal war zones.

The guides come and go. Sometimes they don't know the way either, or they decide to abandon Cole out of fear for their own lives. Cole often gets lost.

But he always has his Bolex camera, equipped with a timer mechanism that enables him to capture images of himself fighting off disease and exposure.

"Heat stroke can be fatal," Cole, who spent years hardening his body and building muscles in preparation for the trip, explains in a matter-of-fact voice.

In addition to visual effects, the film has music by Richard Horowitz, the composer on Bernardo Bertolucci's North African movie The Sheltering Sky.

The film flashes back to scenes of Cole's elderly grandfather, whose death shook him badly. On the trip, Cole carries a small vial containing some of the old man's ashes, as a reminder.

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While searching for watering holes that may exist on a map but not in real life, Cole often captures strikingly beautiful images of desert plants and animals.

Arriving at an oasis, he says, "I long to stay, build a life for myself. There's no death here."

Cole's life was often put in extreme danger by the journey, which includes confrontations with military authorities who suspect him of spying for their enemies.

The filmmaker, who drew acclaim for his 1988 first feature, A Life, gets discouraged by the trip's exhausting hardships. But he doesn't give up and he isn't suicidal.

Miquet said Cole thought that science would eventually find a way to extend life indefinitely.

"He was an idealist," said Miquet, who compared Cole's trek and spiritual quest to a mountain-climber's daring.

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"Not accepting death was part of his belief."

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