Lights, Camera, Sandstorms

A Saharan refugee camp hosts the world’s most remote film festival


| November-December 2008


The festival audience is watching a film by director Ken Loach about the exploitation of illegal immigrants in the UK. But this isn’t Britain. Spanish and Arabic subtitles accompany the film, and after it ends, the audience filters out into Saharan sand. Some of the audience may ponder which is worse, to be an illegal immigrant in Britain or a refugee in the Sahara.

Welcome to Fisahara, the world’s remotest film festival, in the Dajla refugee camp, near Tindouf in western Algeria. It’s a far cry from Cannes, with sandstorms and tents in place of red carpets and designer clothes. Fifty thousand Saharawi people live in Dajla, one of four camps that were set up 32 years ago when Morocco began an occupation of Western Sahara.

“We don’t want to live here,” says Zrug Lula, who works for the camp-based exiled government. “It is a very inhospitable place. But the film festival alleviates the boredom and hardship of being here. It is a kind of escape.”

Now in its fifth year, the festival is a challenging event for the organizers, who must house and transport the 300 people attending from Spain, Belgium, France, Britain, and the Americas. This year, they included Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem and international musician Manu Chao.

 “The visitors fly into a military airport, then we drive them for five hours into the desert,” says Lula. “All our visitors sleep in tents like us, even the celebrities. It’s not ideal, but at least they are witnesses to the real situation. We hope it inspires them to go home and tell people about us.”

Fisahara is more than a lavish publicity stunt, with a program including 29 film screenings over five days. Some of the films are shown in mud-brick warehouses, while others are projected onto screens mounted on trucks and watched under the stars. Most are Spanish films—Spanish is the second language in the camps, since Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until the ’70s. But there are also films from Britain, Mexico, even Mongolia.