Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

And the winner of the camel is...
A happening in the Sahara is an oasis of cinematic possibilities

The Times  March 20, 2004


THE Americans have their Oscars, the French have their Palme d'Or, and the Spanish their Goyas. At the Second Annual Sahara International Film Festival, the winner for best picture was given an albino camel. Not a statue, but an actual white dromedary.

The humped beast seemed to take it quite well as it was led into the midst of the cheering crowd and presented to Moussa Sene Absa, the Senegalese director of the film Madame Brouette, about a divorced mother who rebels against the social and personal abuse she has been subject to all her life. There were no martinis or bikinis at this desert Cannes, which took place last weekend in the Ausserd refugee camp on the edge of the Algerian border in the Western Sahara.

It's one of the unfriendliest places on earth, known mostly for its phosphate mines. The Saharawi have lived here for 28 years, since they fled invading Moroccan troops after the Spanish gave up their colonies in the so-called Spanish Sahara. Today the Saharawi, formerly nomadic Beduin tribes, number 185,000. Nearly half of them were born in the camps.

Hence the film festival, which was started two years ago by the Spanish film community to bring attention to these mostly forgotten refugees, this year drew more than 400 participants. The entries included movies from Denmark, India, and Cuba, as well as the Spanish film The Sea Inside, which took the award for Best Foreign Film at this year's Oscars.

"The whole world has forgotten them," says Lola Dueñas, one of the stars of the The Sea Inside. "Maybe by being here we will bring some attention to their situation."

The films were shown on an ad hoc screen under the Saharan night sky, the screenings joyously chaotic with children running around shouting, teenagers and adults sitting on the desert sand, all watching scenes from Danish farm life, the Argentine ghettos, health clinics in Equatorial Guinea and Indian slums.

For the movie folk attending the festival, the trip began with an arrival at the Algerian military airport in Tindouf and a bumpy 90- minute ride in ancient buses and Jeeps across the desert into the middle of the pitch-black refugee camp. The Saharawi refugees instantly surrounded them, the children asking for sweets. The Spaniards immediately got out cigarettes, cigars and mobiles. After the chaos of unloading was sorted out, the participants waited to be assigned to a Saharawi family. Everybody, from starlets to journalists, spent the four days of the festival bunking with the Saharawi in canvas tents and clay huts. The habitations were clean and simple, with rugs for beds and light provided by a jury-rigged system using car batteries.

The organisers were nervous about the first night, because the wind was whipping up the desert sand and it might prove too harsh to hold the festival outdoors. But by the time darkness fell at 9pm the wind had died down and the films were shown on a giant outdoor screen.

The rest of the festival went relatively smoothly. Icíar Bollaín's Flowers from Another World, a moving film about Cuban immigrants in Spain, was cut short after a sexy scene was deemed too intense for the children by the Saharawi leaders. With the young ones gone, the film resumed.

Bollaín, who has also starred in Ken Loach's Land and Freedom and won the Goya for her film on domestic violence, I Give You My Eyes, usually turns down invitations to film festivals, but this was an exception. "We have a historical debt and a moral debt" to the Saharawi, she said. Anyway, she added with a smile, "it's more of a happening than a festival".

The festival was not all about stars and award-winners. Workshops were set up in which professional directors, cinematographers and film professors taught the refugees their craft.

The cinematographer Jordi Abusada was one of the most popular teachers, with his class for teenagers. He shot the award-winning film Mondays in the Sun, starring Javier Bardem. For six hours a day Abusada demonstrated the basics of how to use a camera to a rapt audience. He took the kids out to practise their newfound talents, making short documentaries about their lives.

One of his students, Lehbib Amed Salem, dreams of being a film director and would like to continue to study film, perhaps in Cuba, where many Saharawi youths go for secondary school and university.

And what about the prize of the white camel? Sene Absa gave him to the family he stayed with. Better than an Oscar any day.

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