Shooting for Change in Western Sahara

Shooting for Change in Western Sahara

By Sean Williams



Because we all have celluloid dreams. 

By Sean Williams

Sean Williams is a roving British journalist who is based in Berlin and regularly contributes to OZY, The Economist, Vice and others. 

In a small, rose-walled room in the desert, a dozen students are shielding their ears from a shrill scream. “This is pitch!” their teacher yells through the noise as the teenagers cup their ears and exchange confounded looks. When it’s over, they explode into laughter. They make up the fourth class of students ever to study in the world’s most isolated film school. Their teacher, who is visiting from Europe, aims at nothing less than helping them “move on from the conflict.” 

“The conflict” has gone on so long, it boggles the mind — 40 years and counting. It’s set in Western Sahara, a big, spleen-shaped spit of rock and sand that borders the Atlantic. For decades, Morocco has claimed this territory as its own. A Marxist group called the Polisario Front has begged to differ. For two generations now, tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of refugees, Sahrawis, have been caught in the middle. The armed conflict ended in 1991, but hatred on both sides, camps, poverty and a 1,600-mile sand wall, the Berm, endure. Neither side can even agree on how many refugees there are. All of which, for me, raised a question: Can the movies, of all things, help resolve a seemingly intractable conflict?

Culture may not tear up those contracts nor sweep the land mines. Yet for many Sahrawis, art is a daily respite.

Founded in 2011, the Abidin Kaid Saleh Audiovisual School is run by a charity, FiSahara, which in turn is backed by the Polisario and funded mostly by Spanish donations (Spain colonized Western Sahara until 1975). A dozen years ago, FiSahara made its name with something else improbable: an international film festival. It has attracted celebrities like Penélope Cruz and Viggo Mortensen to watch films in the middle of a desert refugee camp, sipping sickly tea and fruit juice instead of Champagne — alcohol is not allowed in this deeply Muslim region. 

It was a sweltering afternoon when I visited the school, located beyond a dirt track in the camp of Rabouni. In its bare-walled lobby hung sun-bleached pictures of fallen Polisario soldiers, “our martyrs,” as Omar Ahmed, the school’s stout, bespectacled coordinator told me. But at the school, he hastened to add, “we’re not politicians. We’re cinematographers.” Maybe. But there’s no question that the school’s motives are political: to preserve Sahrawi ways against encroaching Moroccan culture, according to FiSahara Executive Director Maria Carrion. To raise awareness of the long-running Sahrawi plight. To redeem the reputation of the Polisario, whom detractors paint as violent Islamists. 

By the end of their two-year course, the students will have learned “a cinematic voice, the basics of production and sound,” said Marino Villaa, the teacher whose sound lesson had everyone in stitches. But more important than the technical knowledge is a kind of narrative self-confidence: Now, he said, the students “see cinema as something ‘other,’ but not for them to make at home.” The plan is to create one movie by year’s end. Latidos del Sahara (“Heartbeats of the Sahara”), a documentary released last year, is the school’s best-known production. Eventually, Ahmed said, the school will create its own, uniquely Sahrawi cinematic style.

Whether any movie can translate to a better life for Sahrawis is hard to say. Politically, and physically, they are trapped. Morocco is a key ally of France and the U.S. as well as the world’s largest exporter of phosphates, mined in Western Sahara and used for everything from fertilizer to iPhones. Chinese trawlers are drawn to its bountiful fisheries. And it spends a huge amount of money lobbying in Washington. Not even the U.N. has a human rights mandate in Western Sahara — though Human Rights Watch has said there are human rights abuses on both sides. 

Culture may not tear up those contracts nor sweep the land mines. And you can’t eat movies — not all the refugees “are completely supportive of the festival,” Carrion said. Yet for many Sahrawis, cornered in their camps with little to do, art is a daily respite. Spoken-word poetry crackles across old AM sets. Drivers speed or slow to the rhythm of the radio as they haul old drehmis (Land Rovers shorn of their roofs to avoid radar in the war) toward featureless desert horizons. Any show of local culture — from cooking to the wearing of the traditional gold-piped melhfa robe — contributes to the “silent protests” Sahrawis can perform, Ahmed told me. Anyway, as a film student said, “Sacks of lentils will not end our condition as refugees.” 

Perhaps culture can change that narrative. As the sun faded over the school’s rose-painted walls, I met Mohamed, an 18-year-old in his second year at the school. He took long drags on an Algerian cigarette as he recounted a screenplay about two lovers separated by the Berm. Mohamed admitted he didn’t know where to work after the course finished — or that he could make a difference. But he still thought the school was important: “It allows the world to know us and our struggle.”