Refugee Film Festival Joins Western Sahara Independence Struggle


Audience at the film festival

During the 1960s, when decolonization movements were sweeping the world, it was joked that after achieving independence a country had to do three things: design a flag, launch an airline and found a film festival. Western Sahara has a flag but no airline and despite a 35 year struggle has yet to achieve independence. The closest it comes to its own film festival is the Festival Internacional de Cine del Sahara (known as FiSahara), the world’s most remote film festival, which had its seventh annual gathering this week in a refugee camp deep in the Algerian desert.

An estimated 165,000 Saharawi people that fled their native Western Sahara have lived for over three decades in such refugee camps. Western Sahara, “Africa‘s last colony,” was divided between Morocco and Mauritania by the Spanish when these countries withdrew in 1976 following the mass mobilization by the Moroccans known as “the Green March.” The preceding year the International Court of Justice rejected Moroccan and Mauritanian claims to sovereignty over the territory, effectively recognizing the Saharawis’ right to independence. In February 1976, the Saharawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, declared the creation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. A 16-year war ensued between the Moroccans and the Polisario Front, the Mauritanians having withdrawn in 1979. In 1991, the fighting came to end and under the terms of a 1991 UN ceasefire agreement, and a referendum for self-determination was promised. However, this has been continually blocked by Morocco, leaving the Saharawi to live in four large camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert.

A film festival might seem light the last thing needed by refugees who are dependent on external aid for virtually all their basic needs. Yet the festival organizers regard culture as an important and much overlooked aspect of social progress, essential for maintaining the spirit and identity of a people who have lived in exile over 35 years. FiSahara takes place in Dakhla, the most isolated of four camps in a region know as ‘the Devil’s garden’. It is 130 miles from the nearest town and home to around 30,000 Saharawi refugees. There are no paved roads, no sources of water, no vegetation and in the summer months temperatures regularly top 120F. And yet once a year Dahlka plays host to a gala of screenings, concerts and workshops attended by around 400 actors, directors and film industry insiders from around the world.


The program boasts an eclectic mix of over 30 films including several about the experience of the Saharawis, some made by Saharawi refugees themselves. Other films offer the refugees a window to the rest of the world: an audience of over 300 refugees sat for two hours captivated by films such as Ken Loaches Looking for Eric, the story of a postman living in a Manchester housing estate. “Eric is not a refugee but he has just the same problems of the heart as we do in the desert” observed audience member Aliya Ahmed after the film. Sixteen-year-old Mahyouba Ahmedu was particularly enthusiastic about a South African film called The Maunscripts of Timbuktu. "Seeing the way that Tuaregs live like us in the desert was very interesting" she says. "I would like to travel to understand what it is that makes people different, and what it is that makes people just the same." While many of the films such as the Gaza documentary, To Shoot an Elephant, are about social struggles, festival organizers are also keen to ensure that audiences are also entertained. Gordos, a Spanish comedy about obesity went down well and the Spanish animation Planet 51 about an astronaut captured by aliens filled the desert night with children’s laughter. Although films were generally culturally appropriate for a Muslim audience of all ages, there was no censorship and a scene in the Hollywood epic, Agora, involving a naked Rachel Weiss sent an excited shockwave through the audience.

Despite his failing eyesight, seventy-year-old Salek Sahah Yahia sat through El Problema, a film exploring the history of the crisis in Western Sahara. "My head is full of memories" he said as the credits rolled. "It was many years ago but for me the day napalm bombs fell on our village is like this morning." In 1976 Yahia led his family to the safety of Dakhla before returning to fight for four years against the Moroccan occupation. "I am an old man but I am still ready to pick up a gun." he said clenching a boney fist. However, as Yahia struggles to get up from the sand before the next film begins, it is clear that his fighting days are over.

For Deiga Aklaminhom, who is 32 and has lived her entire life in Dakhla, FiSahara offers a welcome break from the monotony of life as a refugee. "I have been waiting all year for this week to come," she smiled. "For me the workshops have been so wonderful." Over a dozen workshops are run by film industry professionals offering refugees access to film-making equipment and audio-visual training. This year, twenty Britons from the Caravanserai acting studio ran a joint workshop with a film director to teach potential Saharawi film-makers how to work with actors. “There was one moment during the workshop when a scene we were developing about the torture of a hunger striker slipped into ultra realism” recalls acting coach Giles Forman. “It was incredibly intense and despite cultural and linguistic barriers I’m certain that everyone in that room had goose pimples.” It is this form of cultural interchange that makes FiSahara so remarkable. All visitors, including the celebrities, stay with Saharawi families, sharing their home and their food and talking leisurely over endless glasses of sweet Sahawari tea.

On the last day, festival-goers gathered for the opening of a new radio, film and television school built in a neighboring camp. The school will provide technical training and the work produced there will form part of the program of future festivals. According to Jadiya Hamdi, Minister of Culture of the Saharawi government in exile, engaging young people in film-making not only sustains and energizes Saharawi culture but also gives these forgotten people a sense of purpose. "Empty time is a dangerous thing," she said. "It can kill a human soul."

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist, broadcaster and human rights campaigner. If you would like to help the Saharawi people or get involved in the film festival visit

Photos by Robert Griffin