"I must have attended almost a hundred film festivals over the years but I'd never been to one in a refugee camp deep in the desert," says Neil McCartney, Chair of The Independent Film Trust on his return from the FiSahara Film Festival in October. "I'm still getting the sand out of my ears, but it was remarkable festival and I loved it."
He was among the 350 international guests including actors, directors, activists and cinephiles, who travelled to Dakhla, a sun-baked refugee camp deep in the Sahara desert in Algeria, to participate in FiSahara's 13th edition. International guests stayed with Saharawi refugees exiled from Western Sahara for nearly four decades, sharing their homes and their food and sitting shoulder to shoulder with them on rugs to watch movies. This year's programme included more than fifty films, all projected at night onto two large outdoor screens attached to the side of articulated lorries.
The festival took place over five days in the sprawling camp which is home to tens of thousands of refugees. Without paved roads or running water Dakhla is an unlikely place for a film festival, but it is precisely its remote location and lack of amenities that makes it the ideal choice for a festival that aims to educate and entertain both refugees and international participants. For the refugees, FiSahara helps break the monotony of camp life, offering a rare window on the world beyond the bleak desert horizons. For guests, it gives them a unique insight into the world of refugees who have been largely forgotten by the international community.
The festival site is in the centre of the camp. Screenings take place after sundown. Each day there are activities including workshops and camel races, football matches and clown shows for the children. At night, as well as the films, there are concerts in the rolling dunes with performances by local and international musicians including the acclaimed Spanish band Vetusta Morla.
The theme of this year's festival was Occupied Peoples: Memory and Resistance. The programme ranged from documentaries to blockbusters, animations to films made by the refugees themselves. The winner of the White Camel, the festival's top prize (which is an actual live camel), went to Ladjouad (2016) made by Brahim Chegaf, himself a graduate of a film school set up in the refugee camps in 2010. His film, which follows the thousand mile journey of three old men who cross the desert to visit a mystic mountain, is an exploration of Saharawi collective memory and culture. In addition to the white camel award, it is hoped that the Raindance film festival, a supporter of FiSahara, will screen 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. Collecting his award thee film's director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, described FiSahara as "the most inspiring film festival I have ever been to."
Whilst a film festival might not seem a priority in a refugee camp where health problems include hepatitis B, anaemia, meningitis, and various forms of malnutrition, there is belief that culture is an important tool for survival. As Jadiya Hamdi, the Minister of Culture for the Saharawi government in exile, explained at a previous festival, film-making not only helps preserve and enrich their culture but also gives people in the camps a sense of purpose. "Empty time is a dangerous thing," she told me. "It can kill a human soul."
This year's festival included numerous audio¬visual training workshops, ranging from sound editing to film archiving for refugees. "We are witnessing how cameras and film have become essential tools in the Saharawi's struggle against occupation," said Maria Carrion, the festival's executive director. "It is through these images that the hearts of people across the world are touched."
Mhairi Morrison a Scottish-American actress who flew out from Los Angeles for the festival was deeply moved by her stay in the camp deeply and formed a close bond with her host mother, Warda, and her family. Warda, aged 28, was born in Dakhla, studied psychology in Algiers before coming back to work in the camp hospital. "We could speak French together but I also taught her mime which she was fascinated by. 'In which country do they speak mime?' she asked me."
Before coming to the festival Mhairi had read all she could about it and had come across a quote from Javier Bardem who attend in 2008 in which he described FiSahara as "nothing short of a miracle".
"This quote kept coming back to me, particularly on the last night," says Mhairi. "I was with Warda beneath a vast star-filled sky. We sat beside each other in silence for a long time. Eventually she turned to me and took my hand and said. 'Thank you a thousand times for coming. Do not forget us.'" For visitors to the FiSahara film festival, forgetting Dakhla and the people who live there, is not easily done.
Photos by Alberto Almayer, Sergio R. Moreno, Carlos Cazurro, Josephine Doucet & Stefan Simanowitz,