Wednesday, February 21

Cinema under the sky of the Sahara desert to “decolonize the largest open-air prison in the world”

When the few available lights go out, which endure with ailments due to the precarious electrical network, the Assuerd refugee camp (Tindouf, Algeria) is left in darkness, barely illuminated by a waning moon. A murmur of half a thousand voices is increasing, but the noise dies down when the projector is turned on, behind the backs of those who wait, expectantly, for the show to start. A large white truck acts as a screen and on it is projected the first film of the seventeenth edition of the FiSahara festival, a Spanish and Saharawi initiative that takes cinema to the desert.

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In Tindouf are the territories of the Sahara liberated by the Polisario Front and various refugee camps are located there, populated by more than 170,000 people who were exiled from their lands after the Moroccan occupation of 1975. “We want to decolonize the largest prison in the air free of the world”, say the organizers of the FiSahara. This is how the children of the desert call their home, who this week are hosting a film and human rights festival that aims to denounce the harsh situation of the place.

The film that uncorks the festival is ‘Wanibik: the people who live in front of their land’, in which the Algerian director Rabah Smilani explains how a group of Saharawi film students shoot their first film by taking over the wall of shame –the one that separates the liberated Sahara from that occupied by Morocco – as a protagonist. “My story is that of any Saharawi, be it a child or an adult. Oppression has stolen our youth and has raised us under the yoke of fear”, says a young refugee, looking at the camera, while hundreds of compatriots listen to her.

The women, sitting on the sand of the desert and gathering their children in their laps, while protecting themselves from the night cold with their melfas (veils), nod solemnly. The young men stand in a group and share cigarettes in silence. But the recollection is shattered when the film shows a man from the Polisario Front firing a missile at the wall of shame. The combatant launches the projectile and, with it, dozens of throats burst into zaghareets (Arabic ululation). The children’s eyes light up as they see their mothers scream. The men laugh and proclaim “long live the free Sahara” with their fists raised.

“I want to put my cinema at the service of the Saharawi cause, a fight that needs to spread a message of dignity and resistance”, says Smilani about his film. The Algerian premiered the film at the FiSahara festival because he wants his cinema “to reach the people and the people who struggle. I want it to be seen in the last African colony, not on Amazon”, he claims. Precisely facilitating access to culture for the Saharawi population is one of the objectives of the festival. “Cinema is important to us to spread the history and struggle of our people, not only to the world, but among ourselves,” explains Tiba Chagaf, director of the festival.

As he recalls, in the Sahara occupied by Morocco there is a media blockade that does not allow the stories of those who have remained to cross the wall. And it doesn’t make it easy for journalists and filmmakers who delve into its depths to explain what happens there. This blockade explains why only three of the ten films screened at the festival are Saharawi (all of them co-produced with Algeria or Spain).

The end of the ceasefire

“Cinema allows us to keep our identity alive and we transmit it to the children of exile who have not been able to know their culture or country,” says Chagaf. Aware of the importance of the seventh art, the FiSahara is not limited to exhibiting films, all projected outdoors, in direct contact with the desert dunes that have been taken from the Saharawi people. For more than a decade, they have also carried out audiovisual workshops for the inhabitants of the camps, from which the Abidin Kaid Saleh Audiovisual Training School was born. Thanks to her, dozens of young people have learned to use cameras and microphones to tell their story with their own voice.

“It is very important not to make films about Saharawis, but with Saharawis, because there are already enough stories of re-victimization,” says Slimani. Zarga strongly agrees with this statement. This 32-year-old woman claims to be fed up with the shows of solidarity that come and go, that they only want a sad story from the Sahara to tell and “win prizes”.

It is especially hurt by Spain, especially now that the President of the Government, Pedro Sánchez, has changed his position regarding the geopolitical situation in the region and, for the first time, has openly positioned himself in favor of the Moroccan strategy, which rules out holding a self-determination referendum and commitment to the autonomy of the Sahara within the kingdom of Mohammed VI.

Even so, he says that the president’s turn has not surprised him and assures, sarcastically, that the PSOE is like a desert cactus called chawkra. When it rains they are tender and sweet, but when there is drought they become harder and their thorns can pierce the soles of shoes. “The socialist party is the same: when it was in opposition, everything was good words for the Sahara. But now that he is in charge and we need those good intentions because the war has resumed, he clicks more than ever.

And it is that this edition of the FiSahara, which returns after two years suspended by the pandemic, is being held in a complicated geopolitical situation. Like he hadn’t seen each other in years. Precisely in 2020, the ceasefire that the Polisario Front and Morocco had signed in 1991 was broken. The resumption of hostilities occurred after soldiers from the kingdom opened fire on polisario protesters who demanded that the UN council reaffirm itself in his commitment to achieve a referendum for the Sahara. 30 years later, the Sahara is once again a war zone without these three decades having served to advance a single millimeter in resolving the conflict.

“This is Sahara”

Saharawis like Zarga do not believe in the international governments that have given their word so many times and have committed themselves to the self-determination referendum. She believes in her neighbors, her friends and also in the people who come to visit them with the excuse of the FiSahara. “We need culture; we want movies and music, but not just sad things that remind us that we are an occupied land. We want to remember who we are and why we were once happy and peaceful,” says Fatma, a very young mother of two girls.

The festival also takes care of that happy and unique culture, setting up jaimas (tents) in which cultural events are organized. Fatma grabs her daughters by the hand and directs them to one of them, the most striking of all. She is occupied by about twenty women who dance and laugh. Some in choreography and others as guided by the body. Many use white powder that leaves them with a clear complexion, while they tint the tips of their fingers with henna in a color that matches that of the dates that they offer to visitors.

Fatma and her daughters start dancing; They are the ones who do it without choreography. “This is Sahara. We are children of the desert and we are used to suffering. Our war is cultural. We only shoot a gun if we are threatened, but we are not violent”, says the young mother. Perhaps if they were, she reflects, the situation would be different. The young woman remains thoughtful with this idea, which soon goes out of her head when the youngest of her daughters comes out of the tent where she was dancing and she climbs onto a small movie screen.

It is the Little Sahara. A part of the festival dedicated to the smallest. It is overflowing with little heads that crowd together to be able to peek at what the lights of the projector are telling them. They are unable to sit still. Everyone stirs until a girl about 5 years old stands up and runs towards the moon that is projected on the adobe wall. She touches it. And then she begins to marvel at the light and shadows in a game that is soon joined by other boys and girls. “This is Sahara”, repeats Fatma, proud and tender when she sees that her daughter has the desert moon in the palm of her hands.