It’s perhaps the unlikeliest spot in the world for an international film festival: smack in a desolate, sun-baked corner of the Sahara desert, nearly 110 miles from the nearest town.
Compared to the glitz and glamor of Cannes or Park City, the FiSahara International Film Festival might as well be on another planet.
There are no plush screening rooms, red-carpet photo calls, or champagne-soaked after-parties. That’s because FiSahara takes place in Dakhla, an isolated refugee camp in the Algerian desert that houses families who long ago were forced to flee their homeland in Western Sahara, a thin slice of desert about the size of Colorado on the Atlantic Coast of Africa.
The festival was created eight years ago by Peruvian director Javier Corcuera to help publicize the plight of the estimated 180,000 Saharawis who eke out an existence in these hardscrabble camps. Financed mainly by donors from Spain, Western Sahara’s former colonial master, FiSahara, according to the official website, “provides entertainment and educational opportunities to the refugees, and a unique cultural celebration for visitors.”
The event provides a rare window to the outside world for Dakhla’s 30,000 residents, who live in squat rectangular homes and survive mainly on aid handouts. These people fled Western Sahara to escape the fighting that followed Spain’s abandonment of the territory after 130 years of colonial rule.
Morocco and Mauritania quickly moved in, although Morocco eventually claimed most of the area and launched a 16-year war against the Polisario Front, the main Saharawi independence movement. A 1991 cease-fire was supposed to lead to a referendum on independence or integration within Morocco, but the terms of the vote have been disputed ever since.
Across the border in Algeria, the Polisario Front now administers four camps like Dakhla in a part of the Sahara known as “The Devil’s Garden,” where the mercury regularly rises above 100 degrees in the afternoon. Dakhla is the most remote of the camps, nearly three hours from the Algerian town of Tindouf.
But for four days each May, Dakhla plays host to scores of foreign actors, filmmakers, and backpackers. Instead of four-star hotels, the roughly 400 festival-goers, who are predominately Spanish, bed down in Saharawi family homes. And once the sun goes down, and the oppressive heat fades away, films are projected outdoors on a screen that’s been attached to the side of a tractor-trailer truck.
Struggle is a theme that features prominently in the festival’s films, which is perhaps fitting for an event dedicated to a people who have fought for self-determination for some 36 years. Stephen Soderbergh’s Che was a big winner in 2009.
And just as the Venice Film Festival has the Golden Lion, and the Berlin Film Festival has the Golden Bear, FiSahara has its own animal-themed top prize: the White Camel.
Only unlike its two European cousins, the White Camel isn’t a namesake statuette: the winning director is actually awarded a live camel. Che producer Alvaro Longoria was interviewed by The New York Times after literally dismounting his prize for the 2009 win.
Spain dominated this year’s festival, with Gerardo Olivares’ Entrelobos (Among Wolves) taking home the White Camel. Olivares’ true story of a boy who lives alone in the Spanish wilderness of the 1960s was called an “inspirational tale of adversity overcome” by Variety.
Pa Negre (Black Bread), a family drama set in post-Civil War Spain, and Tambien La Lluvia (Even the Rain), about Spanish imperialism across 500 years, also took home prizes.
The festival isn’t just about screenings: Instructors fly in from Spanish film schools to give continuous workshops and lessons on audio-visual production and storytelling. A desert film school even opened up last year in a neighboring camp.
As for the Saharawis’ struggle for the right to rule the homeland they left behind, there appears to be little movement toward any final resolution. A new round of UN-brokered talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front is slated to take place in July at a UN retreat outside New York. The latest round broke down in early June, with both sides refusing to budge. The Polisario Front continues to demand an independence vote, while Morocco is only ready to offer limited autonomy.
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