A film screening at the FiSahara 2022 film festival

Film festival at refugee camp near Western Sahara amplifies voices of displaced people

Refugees from Western Sahara host a film festival while in exile to attract attention to their plight nearly 50 years after Morocco invaded their land, forcing hundreds of thousands of them to flee.

The World

A film screening at the FiSahara 2022 film festival.

Scott Gurian/The World

It’s been nearly 50 years since Morocco invaded its adjoining territory of Western Sahara, forcing hundreds of thousands of native Sahrawi people off their lands, and constructing a 1,700-mile wall lined with 7 million landmines to divide the region in two.

Human rights groups say that Moroccan authorities have a long history of jailing, torturing or disappearing most pro-independence Sahrawi voices, but the situation has gone largely unnoticed by the international community.

To break through the silence, Sahrawis, now living in refugee camps in neighboring Algeria, came up with a creative solution: They decided to hold a film festival while in exile to attract attention to the plight of what’s been called Africa’s last remaining colony.

A cultural fair held in conjunction with the FiSahara film festival to showcase Sahrawi dance, music, and art, Algeria.

A cultural fair held in conjunction with the FiSahara film festival to showcase Sahrawi dance, music, and art, Algeria.

Credit:

Scott Gurian/The World

Director Tiba Chagaf, standing on a dusty outdoor stage in the Ausserd refugee camp near the city of Tindouf, Algeria, a few weeks ago, kicked off this year’s FiSahara International Film Festival with a rousing call out to his fellow Sahrawis, to which the crowd responded, “We join our hands together for freedom.”

Algerian filmmaker Rabah Slimani receives the FiSaharafirst prize White Camel award for his documentary “Wanibik”

Algerian filmmaker Rabah Slimani receives the FiSaharafirst prize White Camel award for his documentary “Wanibik.”

Credit:

Courtesy of Gonzalo Cases/FiSahara

The idea was first launched back in 2003 by a group of filmmakers from Spain — Western Sahara’s former colonial power. Chagaf said that the festival has two main goals. It’s partially to spread awareness of the Sahrawi push for freedom and self-determination, but it’s also about helping them to document and archive a culture whose very existence is under threat — in an attempt to preserve a record for future generations.

“If we just give people food to fill their stomachs, but not food for their minds, they won’t have an identity as a Sahrawi people, and our culture would cease to exist.”

Tiba Chagaf, director of FiSahara International Film Festival

“If we just give people food to fill their stomachs, but not food for their minds, they won’t have an identity as a Sahrawi people, and our culture would cease to exist,” he explained.

Watch some of the FiSahara festivities here.

Housing with local refugee families

International festival attendees are flown in on a charter plane from Madrid, Spain. Over a span of four days, they stay in the homes of local refugee families, sharing meals with them and experiencing daily life in the camps. Life can be difficult, with blistering heat in the afternoons and occasional sand storms. Residents have to rely on the United Nations for the delivery of water and food rations.

Tiba Chagaf, the Director of FiSahara and the Abidin Kaid Saleh Audiovisual School, speaks with some of his film students

Tiba Chagaf, the director of FiSahara and the Abidin Kaid Saleh Audiovisual School, speaks with some of his film students.

Credit:

Scott Gurian/The World

 

But, despite the odds, each evening, the festival screens films about the conflict and other human rights-related topics. Tents showcase Sahrawi nomadic culture, music and dance.

Maria Carrion is FiSahara’s executive director, and she’s well-acquainted with the challenges of holding an event like this in the middle of the desert. She explained that there are no theaters, so organizers have to build temporary screens. Strong winds sometimes force people inside, there are power outages and the equipment often breaks because of the elements.

Plus, when the festival first started, the locals were not used to watching feature length films.

“They treated it like more of a social event, with people coming and going,” Carrion said.

But now that they’ve grown accustomed to it, it’s become a powerful experience, she said, especially since they can now see their own lives represented on the screen.

Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic President Brahim Ghali greeting film festival attendees

Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic President Brahim Ghali greeting film festival attendees.

Credit:

Scott Gurian/The World

Carrion added that while it might sound strangeto organize a film festival in a refugee camp, it actually serves an important purpose.

“The Saharawi people have been very clear from the beginning that no amount of rice, lentils or medicines are getting them out of here,” she said. “The only thing that will do that is if their voices are heard. And this festival is a way of echoing that call for freedom and for justice.”

Sahrawi President Brahim Ghali also expressed hopes that the festival would increase pressure from the international solidarity movement to end the ongoing conflict, and help Sahrawis in their campaign for decolonization and independence.

Growing popularity

FiSahara started out as an annual event, but it’s proven so popular that organizers have created a solar-powered, mobile cinema that shows films in the camps throughout the year. And they even opened a film school to teach local Sahrawis how to make movies of their own.

Azza Mohamed, 19, is one of the students. She had a short film in this year’s festival addressing the problem of drug use in the refugee camps.

Sahrawi children in a refugee camp studying the Quran, Algeria

Sahrawi children in a refugee camp studying the Quran, Algeria.

Credit:

Scott Gurian/The World

Mohamed acknowledges that, amid all the serious issues that refugees face — like access to adequate food, water and sanitation — making films might seem like an odd choice as a profession. But, she believes that it’s a good way to actually help her people in their struggle.

“You can be a doctor and you can save a few lives,” she said, “but after you die, you’ll no longer be able to help people. If you’re a filmmaker, though, you can have a larger footprint, because your work will live on in history.”

Although this was the 17th edition of FiSahara, it was the first one to take place since a long-standing ceasefire broke down and open hostilities resumed between Morocco and fighters from the Sahrawi government’s armed Polisario Front in November 2020.

Scott Gurian is the host of the Far From Home podcast.

Related: Spain and Algeria at odds over Western Sahara, energy and migration

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