Sahara Film Festival : Desert Blues
After more than thirty years stranded in one of the most inhospitable areas of desert on earth, refugees from Western Sahara are using the arts to highlight their plight. Peter Culshaw met Manu Chao and Javier Bardem at the Sahara Film Festival
How do you get attention for your cause if you are a marginalised people, ignored for thirty years in the desert? When I spoke to several Saharawi refugees in a camp this month in Southern Algeria they felt they had two options. One: violence – freedom fighting, from their point of view; terrorism, according to their enemies – or two: hosting an arts festival and getting some celebrities along to garner some media attention.
|‘If me being here helps in any way, I am glad to help’ – Javier Bardem with Manu Chao and Javier Carcuera, director of the Sahara Film Festival|
Some of the world’s coolest stars were to be found in Dajla earlier this month at the Sahara Film Festival. One night I stumbled into a tent to find Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem playing the bongos. Assorted TV stars from Spain danced the night away. Bardem also played percussion for Manu Chao, the multi-million selling radical pop star, at a concert in the dunes the next night.
The Festival showed many films outdoors and at one indoor venue. Chao and Bardem said they were there because they wanted to raise the profile of the plight of the Saharawi refugees, approximately 200,000 of whom are stranded close to the remote Saharan outpost of Tindouf in the inhospitable desert of Southern Algeria.
The refugees originally came there more than 30 years ago during the war between Morocco and Western Sahara, which until 1975 was the Spanish Sahara. Despite a United Nations mandate in 1991 that ushered in a ceasefire based on the agreement that there should be a referendum to decide the fate of the country, nothing has happened. Assorted plans have come and gone, but meanwhile as the gears of diplomacy move incredibly slowly, the refugees stay put, supported by aid.
|Manu Chao plays to an audience of Saharawi refugees and visitors to the Festival from around the world|
Because they have kept to the ceasefire and not gone in for guerrilla activity or suicide bombing, they have been out of the news, often described as « the forgotten people ». Bardem described the camps to me as « the backyard of hell ».
« If me being here helps in any way, I am glad to help ». A bit different from the Oscars? « That was for professional recognition – this is something else. »
What is remarkable is that over thirty years the Saharawis have managed to set up an entire functioning society in the camps, complete with hospitals backed by aid agencies, and – judging from numerous students I met at the film screenings – a good standard of education.
Will getting a few celebs down make any difference? Maybe not. But Bardem and Chao’s suggestion that the Spanish, as the ex-colonial masters of Western Sahara, were responsible for the situation and should help sort out the mess, did get significant coverage in the Spanish media and has put some pressure on Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s government to do something.
At least someone seems to be listening. Which was the aim of the Festival – that and several thousands refugees getting to see some great films.