By María Carrión
Over a dozen human right defenders and video activists from the Western Sahara are participating in a video workshop offered by trainers from WITNESS and other organizations ahead of the XI Edition of the Western Sahara International Film Festival (FiSahara), which takes place April 29-May 4 in the Sahrawi refugee camps in a remote corner of Southwestern Algeria, deep in the Sahara Desert. FiSahara is a member of the recently launched Video For Change Africa network.
FiSahara is an annual human rights film and cultural festival that uses film and media to empower and entertain refugees from the Western Sahara, a territory occupied by Morocco since 1975; its activities also help raise international awareness about the plight of the Sahrawi people.
Tens of thousands of Sahrawis fled the invasion in 1975 and settled in refugee camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf, where they remain to this day. Sahrawis who did not flee remain under Moroccan occupation, among them the group that has traveled to the camps to participate in this edition of FiSahara.
The workshop takes place as the United Nations Security Council readies a vote this month on its peacekeeping force in the Western Sahara, known as MINURSO. Human rights organizations and Sahrawi activists are asking for the UN to include human rights monitoring as part of MINURSO’s mandate, arguing that it is the only modern UN peacekeeping mission in the world without a human rights component. Thousands of Sahrawis have taken to the streets these days calling for this change, and demonstrations are being met with force from the Moroccan security forces. Several delegations of Spanish human rights observers were expelled this week from the territory.
Sahrawi activists from the territory who represent Equipe Media, CODESA and other groups will receive three weeks of training on how to film, edit and share human rights videos. Among those present is the Sahrawi human rights defender and former political prisoner Mohamed Daddach, who spent 25 years in prison — 14 under the death sentence — and is known as the Sahrawi Mandela.
Sahrawis from the occupied Western Sahara will work alongside film students and refugee organizations at FiSahara’s audiovisual school, located in the Bojador refugee camp. This collaborative workshop will help build strategic alliances in media and film between Sahrawis from both sides of the Morocco-built separation wall, as well as with Moroccan filmmakers who will participate in the trainings.
In addition to WITNESS’ participation, the Mosireen Media Collective (Egypt) and Guerrilla Cinema Movement (Morocco) will also participate in the trainings. The aim is for the Sahrawi activists to improve the quality and impact of their work documenting human rights violations committed in the Western Sahara, where Sahrawi human rights and media organizations are banned and Sahrawis are routinely arrested, beaten and jailed for demonstrating on the streets or advocating for the right to self-determination. WITNESS’ blog recently featured examples of this police abuse of activists.
Beyond the Festival
In 2011 FiSahara opened a year-round film school, Abidin Kaid Saleh, which trains the first-ever generation of Sahrawi filmmakers, many of them women. “My dream has always been to tell my story and the story of my people in my own words”, said Brahim Chagaf, one of the school’s first graduates now training at the school to become an instructor.
The Awaited News, a short fiction by Lala Mohamed Fadel, one of FiSahara’s film students
Fisahara’s main activities will take place April 29-May 4 in Dakhla, the most remote of the refugee camps, with movie screenings, film workshops, concerts, a Sahrawi cultural fair and camel races that attract thousands of refugees. The human rights video workshop will continue there for a third week with the additional participation of filmmakers David Riker (Dirty Wars, United States) and Mitko Panov (The War is Over, Macedonia).
The festivities offer psychological relief from the harshness of life in the camps, which lack basic services like drinking water and sanitation and whose population depends on international humanitarian aid for survival. As one refugee said in 2012, “FiSahara lets us know that we are not alone.”
FiSahara film trainings are also allowing Sahrawis to use film as a means of preserving their rich cultural heritage, under threat from occupation and exile. A huge Sahrawi cultural festival, known as LeFrig, takes place during FiSahara, with local women showcasing traditions such as dance, song, poetry, storytelling, tea-making, games and traditional food.
FiSahara’s XI edition will be dedicated to Sahrawi youth and to Nelson Mandela’s legacy, including his defense of the Sahrawi people. Iconic anti-apartheid fighter Andrew Mlangeni, imprisoned with Mandela for 25 years, will be attending along with South African musician Jonas Gwangwa and his band, who will offer the closing concert. Spanish actors Sergi Lopez, Ana Wagener and Raúl Arévalo and many other international visitors will also convene on Dakhla.
FiSahara’s two screens will offer wide range of films: from family movies like the Palestinian The Scarecrow and When I Saw You to human rights films like The Square and Dirty Wars, to its special section on the Western Sahara, including shorts by FiSahara’s film school students.
FiSahara subsists on small grants and donations and is made possible by the volunteer work of hundreds of people. It recently launched a crowdfunding effort to help support its work.
María Carrión is executive director of the FiSahara Film Festival. All photos courtesy of FiSahara.