How a Saharan refugee camp launched an international film festival

The riddle of the sands

Dakhla, an isolated refugee camp in the Sahara, is not the most likely setting for an international film festival. And yet, last week, this desolate camp in south-western Algeria was transformed into a gala of screenings, workshops and concerts attended by an array of internationally acclaimed actors and film-makers.

Now in its sixth year, the Sahara International Film Festival was the brainchild of the Peruvian documentary film-maker Javier Corcuera, who came to the region in 2002 and was moved to action by the plight of the estimated 165,000 Saharawi refugees who have been in the camps for over three decades. Despite the political nature of the festival, the atmosphere is one of celebration. As well as workshops and films, activities included a football match between the visitors and the locals, a camel race, a moonlit party in the dunes and a concert by the Spanish-based band Macaco.

The festival is gaining renown, helped by the support of Penelope Cruz and Pedro Almodovar among others. This year the biggest names in attendance were Spanish actors Elena Anaya (Sex and Lucia) and Eduardo Noriega (Vantage Point), as well as the Oscar-nominated film director Javier Fesser. Last year, Javier Bardem appeared, helping the festival garner international publicity and securing a spread in OK magazine. The publicity has helped campaigners in Spain to gather a quarter of a million signatories to petition the Spanish government to act to support the Saharawis' demand for self-determination. The festival has two aims: to provide entertainment and educational opportunities for the refugees, and to raise awareness of the situation of the Saharawi people, who have been in exile from Western Sahara for more than 30 years.

Western Sahara was taken over by Morocco and Mauritania when the Spanish withdrew in 1975. The Moroccans annexed much of the territory in defiance of a ruling from the International Court of Justice. A 16-year war ensued between the Moroccans and the Saharawi independence movement, the Polisario Front. Under the terms of a 1991 UN ceasefire agreement, a referendum for self-determination was promised, but has been continually blocked by Morocco, leaving the refugees to live in four large camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert.

Home to nearly 30,000 refugees, Dakhla, named after a coastal city in Western Sahara, is the most remote of the camps, located 175 km away from the nearest city, Tindouf. It is a sprawling single-storey town. It is clean and well-organised, with wide sandy streets lined with rectangular houses and tents forming neat family compounds. Temperatures in the heat of the afternoon top 100F. At these times, the festival-goers retire to the shade alongside the Saharawi families in whose homes they reside for the duration of the festival. Summer temperatures on the hamada desert plain regularly top 120F. With sandstorms, little vegetation and no sources of food or water, it's little wonder that the area is known locally as "the devil's garden".

The festival site is in a spacious area in the centre of the camp, with its focal point a multiplex-sized outdoor screen attached to the side of an articulated lorry. The screen is in an open courtyard with space for 300 people seated on mats in the sand, surrounded by tents for workshops, exhibitions and indoor screenings as well as stalls and cafés. Screenings are after sundown: an eclectic programme of more than 40 international films reflecting diverse experiences of hope and struggle as well as mainstream entertainment.

It's quite incongruous watching John Hurt and Elijah Wood gad about the English countryside in The Oxford Murders while a camel plods slowly past the screen. Die Welle (The Wave), a film about the workings of totalitarian government, caused quite a stir, as does Belgha, La Memoria Viva, a Spanish-made film about Saharawi refugees. If there were an audience prize it would have gone to El Lince Perdido, a Spanish animation about a jinxed lynx, which held a crowd of children enraptured.

The majority of the 500 participants were Spaniards, but there were representatives from around the world, including Britain. A company of actors from London performed a play based on the real story of a Saharawi refugee to raucous audience reaction, and a team from Roehampton University, led by the professor Isabel Santaolalla, a trustee of the London-based Saharawi charity, Sandblast, ran a "digital postcard" workshop. The postcards filmed by refugees have been put online, allowing their messages to be seen around the world and by their extended families living in occupied Western Sahara.

The idea behind the workshops is to provide Saharawi refugees with an opportunity to learn about film-making, tell their own story and promote their culture. This vision is being turned into a more permanent reality with a film school in a neighbouring refugee camp due to start construction in the coming weeks, and scheduled to open during next year's festival. A number of film schools around the world have pledged to fund year-long exchange placements for students of the school. Jadiya Hamdi, the Minister of Culture of the Saharawi government in exile, told me how getting young people involved in film-making not only ensures a vibrant culture but also gives people in the camps a sense of purpose. "Empty time is a dangerous thing," she said. "It can kill a human soul."

Channelling their energies creatively is also a way of curbing a growing militancy among some young Saharawis who, after waiting while countless UN resolutions have been passed and ignored, are losing faith in the diplomatic process. This militancy is embodied by 19-year-old Ibrahim Hussein Leibeit, whose leg was blown off below the knee by a land-mine three weeks ago. He had been taking part in a march to the 1,550-mile-long fortified barrier known as "the wall", built by the Moroccans to stop the Saharawis from returning to their land. Ibrahim, in a symbolic gesture, was attempting to get close enough to the wall to throw a pebble to the other side when he trod on the device. He has no regrets. "I would gladly lose my other leg if it would mean my country could be free," he said.

"I feel as if I have witnessed something miraculous," Eduardo Noriega told me on the last night. "These people are so abandoned and yet, by some miracle, they subsist and, by some other miracle, they host a film festival."

As our convoy headed back across the empty desert, our thoughts were with people such as Issa Brahim, a 32-year-old mother of four who was born and raised in the camp. She described the difficulties of life in Dakhla. "We have nothing here," she said. "We are without work, we are without water, we are without land for our goats to graze. But we are not without hope." Greatest among Issa's hopes is to set foot in her homeland for the first time.

To help the Saharawi refugees or get involved with next year's festival, visit freesahara.ning.com or email freesaharacampaign@googlemail.com.

To find out more about Sandblast visit: www.sandblast-arts.org

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