FiSahara: film festival in the desert

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FiSahara: film festival in the desert

The festival shows worlds we have forgotten to refugees and international guests, writes Stefan Simanowitz.

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Watching a film in the Dakhla refugee camp, in the Sahara desert, Algeria, at FiSahara © Alberto Almayer

‘I have been to almost a hundred film festivals, but never in a refugee camp in the desert,’ said Neil McCartney from The Independent Film Trust after the FiSahara Film Festival in October. ‘I still have sand in my ears, but I loved it.’

350 international guests (actors, directors, activists and people who love films) went to Dakhla, a refugee camp in the Sahara desert in Algeria, for the 13th FiSahara. International guests stayed with Saharawi refugees who had to leave Western Sahara nearly four decades ago. They shared their homes and food and sat together to watch films. There were more than 50 films, all shown at night on two large outdoor screens on the side of large lorries.

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Alberto Almayer

The festival was five days long in the camp where tens of thousands of refugees live. They have no paved roads or running water, so Dakhla is an unlikely place for a film festival. But because it is so far away and is so simple, it is the perfect place for a festival that tries to educate and entertain refugees and international guests. For the refugees, FiSahara brings an interesting change and shows a different world. For guests, it helps them understand the world of refugees who the international community have mostly forgotten.

The festival site is in the centre of the camp. They show the films when it’s dark. In the daytime there are activities eg. workshops, camel races, football matches and clown shows for the children. At night, there are the films, and music concerts in the sand dunes by local and international musicians eg. the Spanish band Vetusta Morla.

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Alberto Almayer

The theme of this year’s festival was Occupied Peoples: Memory and Resistance, and there were many different types of films: documentaries, blockbusters, animations, and films made by the refugees. The biggest prize of the festival, the White Camel (the prize is a real live camel), went to Ladjouad (2016). Brahim Chegaf, who made the film, graduated from a film school set up in the refugee camps in 2010. His film follows the thousand mile journey of three old men who cross the desert to visit a mystic mountain; it shows Saharawi memory and culture. The Raindance film festival (a supporter of FiSahara) hopes to show the film at their festival in London next year.

Second prize went to Sonita (2015), a documentary by an Iranian film maker about an Afghan teenager who dreams of becoming a rapper. Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, director of the film, said FiSahara was the most inspiring film festival he had ever been to, when he collected his award.

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Alberto Almayer

Maybe a film festival is not the most important thing in a refugee camp where there are health problems eg. hepatitis B, anaemia, meningitis, and malnutrition. But people believe that culture is also important for survival. Jadiya Hamdi, Minister of Culture for the Saharawi government in exile, said at a festival in the past that making films helps keep and improve their culture and also gives the people in the camps something important to do. ‘If you have nothing to do, this can be dangerous,’ she told me.

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Alberto Almayer

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Alberto Almayer

Mhairi Morrison, a Scottish-American actress, watched the films under the stars with Warda, her host. They sat in silence for a long time. Then Warda turned to Mhairi and took her hand and said. “Thank you a thousand times for coming. Do not forget us.” For visitors to the FiSahara film festival, it is difficult to forget Dakhla and the people who live there.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2016/12/15/fisahara-film-festival/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).