“To run an international film festival in a refugee camp deep in the Sahara desert is little short of a miracle” said Javier Bardem, in London last week for a screening of his film Sons of the Clouds. The documentary, which he produced, follows the Oscar-winning actor on a quest to understand the 38 year-old conflict in Western Sahara and was inspired by his visit to the FiSahara film festival in 2008. "I knew about the situation, but you don't realise the full impact of something until you experience it personally" he explains.
Indeed, just hours after the London screening a specially chartered plane filled with international actors, directors, human rights activists and cinephiles touched down on a scorched runway in Tindouf, southern Algeria. From there they boardered a convoy of vehicles and travelled deep into the desert to Dakhla refugee camp. Home to 30,000 refugees, Dakhla is one of four camps housing Saharawi’s who were displaced from their native Western Sahara following Morocco’s unlawful occupation in 1975. This dusty sprawl of tents and stucco houses with soaring temperatures, no natural water or vegetation may not seem the most likely place for a film festival but for five days last week Dakhla was transformed.
A red carpet was rolled out and an articulated lorry rolled into the central courtyard against whose side films were projected each evening after sundown. This multiplex-sized screen had space for over 300 people sitting on mats on the sand and provided a focal point around which exhibitions, live bands, stalls, workshops and indoor screening tents were set up.
The festival programme consisted of over 65 films including documentaries, animations, short films and even blockbusters such as The Impossible and Life of Pi. But in essence, FiSahara is a human-rights film-festival and was strengthened this year with a partnership with Amnesty International's Movies That Matter film festival. This was reflected in a series of films and workshops on social justice and the Arab Spring with films and film-makers from Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Algeria and even Morocco. Remarkably, Moroccan film-maker Nadir Bouhmouch, attended and his film, My Makhzen & Me which follows the progress of Morocco’s February 20th democracy movement, won a special commendation from the festival judges.
As part of the wider Cinema for the Sahrawi People project, the festival offers entertainment and educational opportunities for refugees and raises awareness of a forgotten humanitarian crisis and attempts to leave a more lasting legacy. In 2011, the project opened a film school in a neighbouring refugee camp and this year 18 short films made Saharawi film students were included on the festival programme.
This year’s top prize, the White Camel, went to a South African documentary Mayibuye y Western Sahara (Return to Western Sahara) which draws parallels between the South African and Western Saharan freedom struggles. The films’ director Milly Moabi says was inspired to make the film by the “peaceful resilience” of the Saharawi refugees she encountered on a visit to the camps in 2011. “I was also inspired by the words of solidarity shared by former South African leaders Thabo Mbeki, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela for the Saharawi’s freedom” she says. This solidarity was reinforced last week when a representative of the South African Department of Arts and Culture took to the stage to announce a donation of R1 million (approximately £60,000) for Saharawi cultural activities.
This cash injection is good news for a festival struggling to keep its head above economically turbulent waters and helped to lift the mood on the final morning of the festival as 300 festival-goers said their goodbyes to the Sahawari families in whose homes they had stayed. “As the projectors are switched off, trucks loaded and we head back across the empty desert we know that the project is still alive” says festival’s executive director, Maria Carrion. “Firstly, because everyone who comes to the festival carries something of the Sahara back home in their heart. And secondly, because films are being made at the film school will be shown at next year at the 11th edition of the FiSahara film festival." The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to prevent them from telling their story. Thanks to the film school and initiatives such as FiSahara the forgotten refugees of Western Sahara are increasingly able to tell their story to their world.
Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and was the international coordinator for FiSahara 2013.