The Canberra Times
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
A documentary on Western Sahara refugees marks a low point, writes Kamal Fadel.
Last month in Sydney, the notion of democracy took a pounding. The launch of the documentary Stolen at the Sydney Film Festival marked a low point in local film culture, and signified the tenuous grip on truth we now have in contemporary society. That such a film should be financed with about $350,000 of public money – through Screen Australia – and accepted by the prestigious festival raises questions about the nature of reality and on how it is depicted in mainstream media, such as through the medium of the film documentary.
Canberra Times article.pdf
The film purports, in a sensationalistic way, to reveal widespread evidence of racially based slavery in the Saharawi refugee camps on the Western Sahara-Algeria border. Central to the apparent scoop is an interview with Fetim Sallem, a 36-year old mother of four. She was in Australia to explain her story, which is significantly at odds with the film’s take on it (so much so that Fetim requested unsuccessfully to have her interviews removed from the film.)
Rather than verifying shaky claims of slavery and then seeking out the source of this possible ill (say in the repressive environment the Saharawi people have endured since the illegal invasion by Moroccan forces in 1975, an event that sent many into the camps that still exist today), the filmmakers of Stolen chose to conflate a few ill-gotten and misunderstood accusations into a tabloid expose. The approach of the film-makers challenges the very basis of the documentary genre and undermines its value as a means of serious scrutiny. In an age when reality TV is nothing of the sort and when celebrity gossip is considered hard news, this is perhaps not surprising. But it is disappointing and very distressing for those who, like Fetim, are vilified in the process.
There are fundamental flaws in the film-makers’ storyboard. Fetim is not a slave and widespread slavery simply does not exist in the Saharawi refugee camps. This fact has been confirmed by numerous visits by independent journalists and human rights reporters over the years.
A member of a delegation sent by Human Rights Watch to investigate the film-makers’ claims said the delegation ‘‘did not find evidence of forced labour, certainly not of slavery of the kind’’ in 19th century America.
The Saharawi live under great strain and considerable duress, brought about by decades of foreign occupation. A generation has grown up in a refugee environment. Our society is not perfect, our situation not Utopian. None is.
But, slavery is something Polisario abhors and is on the record as opposing. The practice is an unacceptable cultural anachronism and we have outlawed it completely since the inception of our independence movement in 1973.
Polisario has worked hard to address whatever human rights issues we find in our midst and we continue to undermine all forms of abuse and restrictions on liberty. This year, Polisario openly lobbied hard for the United Nations mandate to include a human rights monitoring process in its mission in Western Sahara. This was quashed by France, an erstwhile supporter of the Moroccan occupiers in Western
Sahara, using its veto power in the Security Council.
The biggest threat to human rights in Western Sahara is the illegal Moroccan occupation and the failure of the international system –epitomised by France’s blocking actions. These weaknesses ensure the Saharawi remain trapped in a nightmare of Realpolitik, driven to some extent by Morocca’s vast propaganda machine. The simple desire, backed by UN resolutions, to allow the Saharawi the right to decide their fate (independence or an autonomy under Moroccan administration) in a free and fair referendum remains, inexplicably, unrealised.
Reality is clearly a fungible commodity in the eyes of the makers of this film, for its backers and for the festival organisers. They are reflective of a wider crisis in the ability to discern truth from fiction. They are not alone. There has been a negative impact on the life of Fetim Sallem by the actions of the film-makers and also on the cause of independence in Western Sahara. That’s a reality no one can challenge.
¡½ Kamal Fadel is the Australian representative of Polisario, the Western Sahara independence movement.