FiSahara: the world’s only film festival in a refugee camp

At one of the world’s most remote film festivals, cinema is still a fledgling medium, but it is already being put into use as a weapon of resistance. Can film really save the Sahrawis?

Alex Dudok de Wit

Web exclusive

Credit: Alberto Almayer

Somewhere in the teeming Sahrawi refugee camps of southern Algeria, there lives a young girl named Cinema. She was born during the inaugural FiSahara film festival, which is held annually in the remotest of the camps. This year, as I pay my first visit, the girl and the festival turn 13.

Cinema – the medium – is relatively new to the Sahrawis. Their homeland is in the contested territory of Western Sahara, the resource-rich tip of the desert that stretches to the Atlantic. As a Spanish colony, the region was home to a number of cinemas that screened Egyptian dramas to crowds of attentive locals. But as in most of colonial Africa, the indigenous people played no part in film production.

When Spain abruptly withdrew in 1975, Morocco invaded, invoking historical claims to the region. The Sahrawis, until recently a ragtag group of nomadic tribes, swiftly organised a national resistance movement fronted by a militia. To everyone’s surprise they fought the Moroccans to a stalemate, which was cemented in 1991 by a UN-brokered ceasefire.

A girl waves a Sahrawi flag at FiSahara’s opening parade

A girl waves a Sahrawi flag at FiSahara’s opening parade
Credit: Alberto Almayer

The conflict split the population: today, some Sahrawis live under Moroccan occupation in the Western Sahara, while the rest remain confined in the refugee camps, on the other side of a 2,700km wall and parallel minefield built by Morocco. In another sense, however, it forged a national culture. Newly conscious of themselves as a united people fighting for independence, the Sahrawis set about the business of statecraft. The leadership created a Ministry of Information and a national archive in the camps, and called on reporters – chief among them the late Abidin Kaid Saleh, who was the first to answer the call – to film the war effort for posterity. From the start, Sahrawi cinema was a political endeavour.

It took outsiders to crystallise it into something resembling an industry. In 2002, a Spanish nonprofit invited Peruvian filmmaker Javier Corcuera to the camps, hoping to induce him to shoot a documentary. Instead, Corcuera proposed a festival. Over three decades, the camps had evolved into a sort of state-in-waiting, complete with a functioning government, police force and thriving market economy. What the Sahrawis needed was a bridge, a means to communicate their plight to the indifferent world. A coalition of international backers was assembled, and FiSahara, the world’s only film festival in a refugee camp, was born. An affiliated film school named after Abidin Kaid Saleh followed in 2011.

 

Ask the dust

I am reading about 13-year-old Cinema in the festival brochure on a chartered flight to the camps. Around me sits an eclectic group of some 250 festivalgoers: organisers, actors, filmmakers, journalists, activists, politicians, musicians and clowns, most of them Spanish, many tattooed. There is a carnivalesque vibe. The brochure reads more like a revolutionary pamphlet than a film magazine, its pages splashed with rousing slogans such as “Toward victory forever, President Abdelaziz!” and “The Sahrawi people will never walk alone!” In her introduction, festival director María Carrión spells out FiSahara’s creed: “The Sahrawi people have chosen audiovisuals as their weapons… Our task is to help them get those images to those who have the power to end the conflict.”

FiSahara festival, 2016

FiSahara festival, 2016
Credit: Alberto Almayer

Dakhla, the host camp, is a sand-scoured cluster of tents and adobe houses. To reach it, we drive for three hours in an armed convoy through a patch of the Sahara known as ‘the devil’s garden’. This is not the desert of camels and rolling dunes, but of rusting Mercs and flat scrubland. Almost nothing grows here, and the 30,000 inhabitants are largely dependent on foreign aid. Two outdoor pop-up screens rise above the roofs in the centre; guests stay with local families. It is the most improbable setting for a film festival I have ever seen.

Every evening, punters gather on the blankets spread out beneath the screens. This being outdoors, the screenings are fully integrated into the camp’s nightlife. People come and go, chat and smoke, sometimes with their backs to the film. During a showing of Kung Fu Panda, I have a long conversation about North African geopolitics with a wizened man who describes himself as a “philosophical poet”. It isn’t always clear who is here for the films and who for the company.

Sonita screens at FiSahara (2016)

Sonita screens at FiSahara (2016)
Credit: Alberto Almayer

This year’s theme is Occupied Peoples: Memory and Resistance. The programme is divided roughly four ways: international films, docs on the Western Sahara conflict, films made by Sahrawis and straight-up entertainment. The first category covers an eclectic range of socially conscious films from recent years, mostly from or about the Third World. The standout film is Sonita (2015), Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s thrilling documentary about an Afghan teen who dreams of becoming a rapper, to the horror of her conservative family. In the tradition of the best Iranian directors, Ghaem Maghami is concerned not only with her subject’s life but also with how the act of filming influences it (in this case, drastically).

Other highlights include Forgotten Bird of Paradise (2009), British filmmaker Dominic Brown’s striking undercover report on the West Papuan independence movement, and the recent Desert Fire, a documentary short about ConIFA – the Fifa of stateless peoples. Following the Kurdistan team’s bid to win the World Cup, the film poignantly shows how sport can provide a focus for patriotism during a national struggle for recognition, although it dodges the political question of who qualifies. (The United Koreans of Japan made the cut; I searched in vain for Cornwall.) A product of the new partnership between the Guardian and the Bertha Foundation (a FiSahara backer), it bodes well for the rest of the series.

 

On message

The festival’s second strand consists of documentaries about the Western Sahara. Ever since the early days of the war with Morocco, which Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo chronicled in a pair of lyrical documentaries, the region has received a steady trickle of sympathetic filmmakers from abroad (generally Spain). The most high-profile such doc is Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony, produced by Javier Bardem, who has taken up the Sahrawi cause of late.

Sons of the Clouds: the Last Colony (2012)

Sons of the Clouds: the Last Colony (2012)

Those on show at this year’s edition favour a conventional made-for-TV documentary style, mixing talking heads with archive scenes of protests and military manoeuvres. At best, they include footage covertly shot by activists in the occupied territories, reflecting the almost talismanic importance that smartphones have acquired for those Sahrawis living under Moroccan rule. With a few exceptions – a heart-rending portrait of a girl living with diabetes in the camp comes to mind – these films focus on the political situation, inevitably siding with the Sahrawis. Some are powerful, but after a while the law of diminishing returns sets in.

This is not exactly FiSahara’s fault. Films that sniff around the Western Sahara issue, raising tough questions and exposing contradictions, are few and far between. In any case the Sahrawi authorities, determined to appear blameless to the international community, would not allow them to be screened in the camps. The fascinating 2009 documentary Stolen, which investigates the enduring practice of slavery in Sahrawi society, is a case in point: the authorities first detained the filmmakers, then sent a representative to publicly denounce the film at a screening in Australia.

Unfortunately, the result is a rather monotonous line-up of worthy anti-Morocco polemics. Let’s be clear: Morocco’s occupation is outrageously unjust, and it has shown up the weakness of the UN, which has consistently failed to deliver a promised referendum on independence. Insofar as they raise awareness of this little-known conflict, these documentaries deserve praise. At its best, however, cinema is a tool of inquiry and subversion; by contrasting different films, festivals are a forum for dialogue and debate. These aspects are often lacking at FiSahara. There is the added irony that it is a festival which was founded in order to speak truth to power, yet cannot transcend its own political constraints.

Credit: Alberto Almayer

 

Singing their song

More intriguing are the films made by the Sahrawis themselves. Most of these are produced in the festival’s workshops. Over four days, willing locals study the basics of filmmaking with visiting dignitaries or Sahrawis trained abroad. Mauritanian actor Salem Dendou, one of this year’s teachers, explains that he gets his dozen-odd pupils to brainstorm a subject, then guides them through the scriptwriting and shooting process. They use cameras and smartphones to produce a two-minute short. The most promising students can then apply for a two-year course at the nearby Abidin Kaid Saleh Audiovisual School, whose graduation films are also shown at the festival.

The films tend to deal with political or social issues: landmine victims, unemployment, emigration to Spain. The setting is generally domestic, although some films venture out into the blazing sun. One ends with a wide shot of sand dunes poetically scored to the sound of lapping waves: the ocean denied to the Sahrawis. While the subjects are locally specific, many of the shorts throb with a Third Cinema-style rawness and insurgent energy. The subtext is always clear: oppression is wrong, and cannot last.

Building on earlier efforts by the likes of the University of Roehampton and the charity Sandblast to empower Sahrawis through film, the workshops and school export their films via FiSahara’s distribution channels to cinemas abroad (the San Sebastian Film Festival is a notable patron). The ultimate aim, Dendou tells me, is to get them screened throughout the third world. “This century, the people of the third world prefer to watch than to read,” he says. “Cinema can jump borders and link these people in their struggle.”

Understandably, the films by and about the Sahrawis draw the biggest local crowds. Rarely do films reflect their audience back at itself, but throughout these screenings people cheer, laugh with recognition, point out their friends onscreen. Joining this crowd under the night sky reminds me of how sociable cinemagoing can be. By comparison, the international films play to a more muted crowd of mostly foreign visitors. At times, it feels like FiSahara is two festivals.

Credit: Alberto Almayer

 

Flickers of hope

One could hardly accuse the Spanish organisers of trying to impose an alien political agenda on the refugees. For one thing, they assure me that the programme is drawn up in consultation with a local committee. And their choice of theme is well motivated: the Sahrawi leadership itself has long identified its cause with that of other oppressed nations. In the 1970s, anti-colonial Martiniquais writer Frantz Fanon was a favourite with the revolutionary cadre. Today, Palestinian flags are ubiquitous in the camps.

Yet few Sahrawis turn out for the films on Kurdistan, West Papua or Palestine. Concerning Violence (2014), a searing archive documentary about African liberation movements structured around Fanon’s writings, plays to almost nobody. Given the 150,000-strong population of the camps, it’s perhaps a surprise that even the Sahrawi films draw only a small minority of locals. At the film school, staff inform us that they sometimes struggle to fill the 20 allotted places on the course.

Concerning Violence (2014)

Concerning Violence (2014)

As the locals remind me, there isn’t much to do in the camps – so why isn’t cinema exciting greater passions? Carrión points out that the remote and flood-prone Dakhla has recently lost many residents to other camps. Yet even among its remaining inhabitants I detect apathy.

Could it be that, since the ceasefire, the rhetoric of cross-border solidarity has lost its appeal? That conservative elements in this Muslim society resist the appeal of a disruptive new medium, as one local suggests to me? That cinema sits uneasily among Sahrawi cultural traditions, rich in poetry and music but comparatively deficient in the visual arts? Or that the refugees, faced with the grim reality of oppression all year round, would rather just be entertained?

For all the talk of cinema as an international language of resistance, most people here don’t speak it yet. If the Sahrawis really have chosen audiovisuals as their weapons, the majority appear to be pacifists. Yet some talk of the renewed hope the festival has given them – I imagine Cinema’s parents are among them. Among their films, there are flashes of the artistic flair that they will need if they are to make an impact on the world. Perhaps it is ambitious to expect an art form to flourish so soon after taking root in a society, but then FiSahara is not short on ambition. I am keen to see how the festival develops, and with it Sahrawi cinema.

Find out more

Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.