Lights, Camera, Sandstorms

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Image by Xavier Gil Dalmau

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.

“Some Saharawis have never seen a film on 35mm,” says Sarah Pujalte, the festival’s Spanish production coordinator. “We want to normalize life here, show them what they would be doing if they lived in their own country now. We choose films that will both provoke debate and educate people who have never traveled.”

As Abdulahi, a Saharawi journalist, says: “The Mongolian film was about some nomads, and we all loved it. There was a feeling in the audience of recognition, as we are traditionally a nomadic community. The film reinforced our common humanity.”

Clearly the films provide more than just entertainment, and this is key. Film is increasingly viewed as a development tool, not just for Saharawis, but for displaced people everywhere. In fact, refugees in Afghanistan, Macedonia, Kenya, and Tanzania are also enjoying a new relationship with film, thanks to FilmAid International, an aid group that has organized screenings in their camps.

 “Refugees often remain isolated in contained settlements with little connection to the outside world for years on end–the average stay in a refugee camp is now 17 years,” says James Brooke of FilmAid. “Film brings hope and information to fill the void.”

In some camps, film is used to put across messages–to promote health, peace, and human rights, or to warn against HIV/AIDS or gender violence. But Fisahara’s main focus is cultural exchange and exploration. Over the five days, debates and workshops run in tandem with exhibitions, parades, concerts, and camel races. All the artistic events are filmed and played to an audience at the end.

A workshop in which the Saharawi women explore modern dance forms out in the dunes is greeted by rapturous applause at the festival’s closing ceremony. The animation, produced in the children’s workshop, is another crowd puller. In the most popular classes, basic film production, adults learn to make documentaries on Saharawi life.

“I drove three hours from another camp because I want to learn camera, editing, and producing,” says Omar. “One day, maybe I can record what is my life, what is our suffering, what is happening to Saharawi people.”

Sandblast, a London-based organization, is working to provide longer-term cultural and artistic opportunities for the Saharawis, including month-long film and theater workshops, and artist exchange visits to Europe.

“When their experiences of exile are expressed through song, dance, theater, and art, it is more powerful than speech,” says Danielle Smith, who runs Sandblast. “This form of expression really is a need for them, not just a luxury.”

Reprinted from Developments(#42), a publication of the U.K. Department for International Development that aims to raise awareness of development issues;

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