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FiSahara: the making of the ‘miracle’ film festival in a refugee camp

In Britain it is Refugee Week. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates 80 million people are displaced across the world. A lot of media coverage, friendly and otherwise, is premised on the refugee as a passive, voiceless figure. However, there exists a story of cooperation, exchange, and inspired effort in the Western Sahara that challenges that depiction.

I first read about FiSahara International Film Festival when researching the career of Ken Loach. He holds the honour of not only having had the most feature films screened at FiSahara of any director (five as of 2018, including 2006 Palme D’Or winner The Wind that Shakes the Barley) but he sponsored FiSahara’s official presentation in London in 2009, which gave the festival a significant boost to its international profile.

What makes FiSahara special – what Javier Bardem called a “miracle” – is that it is the only film festival in the world that takes place in a refugee camp. Of especial note is the history of the refugee camps themselves, the result of “Africa’s last colony.”

Africa’s last colony

Across seven camps in Tindouf, Algeria, live approximately 173,000 people. They are in exile from the Western Sahara, an enormous coastal strip of land totalling over 100,000 square miles.

The people native to the area, the Sahrawis, were denied statehood when Spain rapidly left the area in 1975, bowing to pressure from Morocco and Mauritania, who both staked historic claims to the land.

Representing the Sahrawis’ desire for independence, The Polisario Front had already been struggling against the Spanish occupation since 1973. The Front formed the exile government, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), in 1976. The Polisario Front would eventually force Mauritania to withdraw and cede all claims to the Western Sahara in 1979.

But Morocco were much more successful against the Polisario Front, building a 2,200km fortified sand wall across the desert to hold 85% of the Western Sahara against the Polisario Front and the Sahrawi exiles, negating the Front’s guerrilla tactics.

The forces came to a stalemate by the mid 1980s. A referendum on Western Saharan statehood, originally slated for 1992, never took place, because both sides disputed who should vote in it. The ceasefire between the Polisario Front and Morocco has thus always been unstable, and many Sahrawis remain refugees.

Creating FiSahara

The first FiSahara festival was held in December 2003, some 27 years after the camps were built by fleeing women and children. State Coordinator for Solidarity Associations with the Sahara (CEAS-Sahara) president José Taboada and the Polisario Front invited Peruvian director Javier Corcuera to “spend New Year’s Eve 2002 in one of the Sahrawi refugee camps,” in order to shoot a documentary about the harsh conditions there.

Instead, the director managed to persuade multiple agencies and individuals in Spain to help fund a film festival with the Polisario Front. This was no small feat, as to this day according to the internet guide for participants “[there] is no running water or sanitation in the camp[s], and no electricity grid. Power comes from solar panels and from small generators.”

Like the Berlin International Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival, FiSahara’s award is named after an animal – except that the “white camel” in question, as well as being a physical trophy in the likeness of a camel presented to the winning filmmaker, is also awarded as a live animal to the family of refugees that hosts them.

Part of what makes the festival so unique is not only the lack of physical separation between the visitors – celebrity or not – and the hosts, but the dependence of these visitors on the hosts’ hospitality in a remote desert camp.

Each visitor is assigned a family with whom they eat and sleep for the duration of the festival. It is for this reason that those lucky enough to attend are left profoundly moved by their experience in a way other, chintzier occasions fail to match.

Powerful testimonies, such as those from journalist and human rights campaigner Stefan Simanowitz and screenwriter Paul Laverty, who along with Ken Loach presented their film Sweet Sixteen at FiSahara, are just two among many. Visitors are often “surprised a few days after arriving back home with a phone call, distant and crackling, from their new Sahrawi relatives inquiring about the trip back.”

There’s more. In 2011, a film school began in the camps, with its alumni eventually screening their productions at the festival. Films made at the centre, called the Abidin Kaid Saleh Audiovisual School, are now traveling all over the world, screening at human rights festivals such as Spain’s San Sebastián Film Festival, held this year in late September.

Some of the film school's editing equipment.

FiSahara emerged during the ceasefire of 1991 as a radical project, and remains an astounding technical and logistical feat. Perhaps its most enduring impact has been the way it has given a cultural, if not political, legitimation of the Sahrawi people’s plight, who are denied any real power .

This is mirrored by the Polisario Front’s move towards political respectability by eschewing its Marxist-Leninist ideas in the 1970s in favour of a social democratic centre-left programme - the Front is a consultative member of that bastion of polite socialism, The Socialist International.

However, the circumstances the festival has been able to operate under have always been tenuous, and appear under threat.

The future of FiSahara

I noticed that there has been a relative lack of information on FiSahara in the anglophone media (regrettably, I do not know Spanish) over the last two years. So I contacted the festival's press office about the production team’s plans for the festival.

They told me that they had been not only unable to hold the festival because of the pandemic but, due to the deteriorating relations between the Polisario Front and Morocco, they had no plans to do so for the foreseeable future.

Tensions with Morocco appear to have escalated in December 2020 when Trump announced America’s recognition of Morocco’s claim on the Western Sahara – reportedly in exchange for allegiance between Morocco and Israel

Last month, the SADR president and leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, was summoned to testify to a Spanish court on charges brought by a human rights group with strong links to the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs, an advisory committee set up by the late Hassan II of Morocco, after Ghali entered Spain to be treated for COVID-19.

Although the charges were dismissed as no evidence was brought forward, Spanish media reported that Morocco opened its borders to release 9,000 migrants into Spanish controlled Ceuta in retaliation.

As FiSahara’s press representative told me, “The COVID-19 pandemic and the return to war after the breaking of the ceasefire by Morocco, have dramatically altered activity in refugee camps. In 2020 we had to suspend the festival and there is no scheduled date to be able to celebrate it again.

“However, we are organizing cultural activities in the camps with the people who were already there. Examples of this were the different workshops that FiSahara has held there, such as The Value and Impact of Cinema or, more recently, one to empower women.

“The teachers and students from the Abidin Kaid Saleh Audiovisual School actively collaborate in all of them. There is currently no course due to the war. We hope that we can resume classes after the summer.”

It was disheartening to hear this: evidence of the fragility of cultural institutions and more importantly of refugee life. At the same time, the way festival staff and the residents of the camps (now key personnel in their own right) have adapted to continue their work in wartime is an example of the determination and creativity of the people there.

The theme of Refugee Week here is ‘We Cannot Walk Alone.’ Through film, the camps of Tindouf have made that appeal into a call of solidarity and joy, despite the oppression, despite the poverty, despite the loss.

Rob Horsfield holds three degrees – from Leeds, Warwick, and Westminster – and divides his time between work and his full time job, his cat. He is published in the Exchanges Journal and The Dhakha Tribune.

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