FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, AUGUST 2, 2009
DAKHLA REFUGEE CAMP, Algeria--OF the honors reaped by the Steven Soderbergh epic “Che” — including a Golden Palm nomination and the best-actor award for Benicio Del Toro at last year’s Cannes Film Festival — the most surreal would have to be the white camel. That is the top award handed out by the Sahara International Film Festival, whose ceremony took place this spring in an isolated encampment baked dry by the desert sun, where the women were resplendent in colored gowns and the wearing of dark sunglasses was actually necessary.
Mr. Del Toro was planning to come, until retakes for his movie “The Wolf Man” called him to London. “He would have hallucinated,” said Alvaro Longoria, an executive producer of ‘Che,’ “ after literally dismounting the prize. (He gave back the animal before departing, receiving a camel statuette in its place.) “This is real. This is what Benicio and Steven tried to tell in the movie. It’s right here: a people fighting a war for their dignity and their land. The principles of Che Guevara are very important to them.”
The sixth annual Sahara International Film Festival claims to be the world’s only film festival held in a refugee camp, a conceit organized by filmmakers from Spain to bring attention to a political contest scarcely recognized beyond this corner of northwest Africa. Some 180,000 Saharawis, a Muslim people of Arab and Berber descent, live scattered in camps along Algeria’s border with Mauritania, exiles of a long struggle with Morocco over Western Sahara, a disputed slice of desert along the Atlantic coast abundant in fish and phosphates.
After 130 years of colonial rule, Spain abandoned Western Sahara in 1975 to Morocco and Mauritania. Morocco eventually annexed most of the territory and fought a 16-year war with the Polisario Front, a Saharawi independence movement backed by Algeria, which ended in 1991 with a cease-fire and the promise of a referendum that would allow the Saharawis a choice between independence and integration. The terms of this vote have been disputed and highly politicized ever since, while Morocco has maintained sovereignty claims over the territory, constructed a sand wall marginalizing Polisario forces to the desert hinterlands and been accused by international human rights organizations of abusing Saharawi dissidents.
“There’s definitely a historical responsibility,” said Dafne Fernández, one of a dozen Spanish actors and directors who attended the festival and who, along with her boyfriend, Carlos Bardem, and his brother Javier Bardem (who attended in 2008), has spearheaded a signature campaign to prod Spain into leading a solution to the impasse. Carlos Bardem, Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz are among the film personalities championing the Saharawi cause in Spain.
Over four days in May, Dakhla — a remote camp of 30,000 situated three hours from the Algerian town of Tindouf — became the stage for a show of solidarity and Saharawi culture. Polisario flags flapped where the logos of corporate sponsors might. Four hundred foreigners attended, most of them from Spain, and were put up in the mud-brick and tented homes of Saharawi families. Meals invariably included camel. In an amphitheater formed by sand dunes, the Spanish group Macaco joined local performers in a musical protest against what they called the sand “wall of shame.”
And each evening, after the mercury dropped from heights that limited daytime activity to drinking tea (temperatures often soar past 110 degrees), crowds of European bohemians and Saharawis assembled to watch a selection of international films projected onto a screen tacked to the side of a tractor-trailer.
Many of the films, coming from a number of countries, including Cuba and Algeria, were set in the context of struggle and oppression. Among those were “The Black Pimpernel,” a film by the Swiss director Ulf Hultberg about the 1973 military coup in Chile, and the German film “Die Welle” (“The Wave”), about the workings of totalitarian government. Screenings of foreign and Saharawi-made short films depicting refugee life evoked scenes from “Cinema Paradiso,” with enraptured audiences clapping to recognizable soundtracks and marveling at the larger-than-life portrayal of a familiar drama.
Throughout the festival, visiting instructors from film schools in Spain and San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, taught audio-visual and storytelling workshops to young Saharawi women. With international funds, construction begins this summer on the Sahara School of Cinema, which will be located in another camp and offer a yearlong curriculum in film and television. Camps are acquiring video libraries with projectors and sound equipment.
Although these might appear to be odd luxuries for an impoverished, desert-dwelling people — the festival’s budget of 300,000 euros ($425,000) was picked up by a mix of public and private contributions — the Saharawis view filmed media as critical to their empowerment.
“The Saharawis need to express their ideas from their point of view, not just from the Europeans that come to see us,” said Omar Ahmed, the festival’s producer. “We need the tools to break out from under the information embargo that Morocco puts on us and project our culture and cause to the world.”
Meanwhile, as the United Nations this year renews attempts to broker a deal — and a growing impatience among younger Saharawi foments radicalism — the propaganda war continues. On the very same weekend, in the original Dakhla, a pleasant coastal city in Western Sahara under Moroccan control, the government there staged its own cultural festival to siphon attention from the camp. Or so the Polisario say: Morocco claims no such thing exists.