There’s a territory sandwiched between Morocco and Mauritania, divided from the former in atlases by a dotted line, that carries the opaque name of Western Sahara.
You might occasionally spot footage of it on the news, grainy shots of a sand wall lined with landmines and Moroccan soldiers, although most will struggle to place it in any geo-political context. I’m standing here, on Western Saharan soil – sand, rather – gazing across the minefield at the shadowy sentries atop the wall.
With me is a motley gang of journalists, activists, politicians, filmmakers and clowns. One local is filling me in on the region’s history, explaining how Morocco came to build a 2,700km barrier through the desert. We have reached the moving coda of FiSahara, the most surreal film festival in the world.
Historically, the Western Sahara was the stomping ground of the nomadic Sahrawi tribes. Yet the Sahrawis have never known it as their state: Spain colonised it in the 19th century, before vacating it in 1975 and effectively handing the reins to Morocco (who had one eye on the territory’s natural resources).
The latter’s invasion triggered a lengthy war with Sahrawi independence fighters, which ended in stalemate in 1991. The conflict sent hundreds of thousands of Sahrawis packing to refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria, while the rest stayed to live under Moroccan occupation on the other side of the newly-built wall. The region remains in this state of limbo, ignored by the world.
Almost. The Sahrawi cause has been taken up by a small cadre of activists – most of them in Spain, which retains strong cultural links with the Western Sahara. They seek to give a sense of hope and purpose to the perpetual refugees, while raising awareness of their plight around the world. It’s in this spirit that FiSahara, a one-week celebration of film and Sahrawi culture in one of the camps, was set up in 2003.
A sojourn on the Croisette this ain’t. I join my 200-odd travel companions in Madrid, where we board a chartered flight for southern Algeria. From the airport, we drive for three hours through the desert in an armed convoy. We arrive in the camp around midnight, sweating under a star-white night sky, and are promptly whisked off to meet our host families. On the way, I spy two pop-up screens rising up from among the tents and adobe houses. I pinch myself.
Every day at sunset, tourists and locals gather on the blankets set down before the screens. This being outdoors, the camp’s nightlife swirls around us: kids on bikes, policemen on cigarette breaks, groups of men and women chatting with one eye on the film.
Due to logistical hiccups the programme is as changeable as the desert winds, but the element of surprise is part of the fun: one evening I’m treated to a gripping documentary about an Afghan refugee in Iran, the next I watch Kung Fu Panda with a local poet.
We are in October, but the heat still oppresses the afternoons, which I spend in my tent drinking sweet tea and conversing brokenly with the women of my host family. In the mornings and evenings, however, the camp is a hive of activity.
Parallel to the screenings, filmmaking workshops are held as part of FiSahara's mission to empower Sahrawis to tell their own story. In four days, keen students use smartphones to film a series of shorts about social and political issues in the camps, which are screened to rapturous applause before the closing ceremony.
Meanwhile, in nearby houses, locals display their artisanal crafts and musical traditions. Passers-by are drawn to one tent by noisy festivities: inside, two elderly men take it in turns to sing a sort of lament, which a circle of women answer with a high-pitched ululation. Between the tents, clowns perform for local children, who strike up conversations with journalists, who try to take notes on the whole dizzying carnival.
Things come to a head on the penultimate night, when word spreads through the camp of a special expedition. Dozens of vans and buses drive us out into the desert proper – causing a traffic jam in the sands – and disgorge us in the midst of vast undulating dunes, the ones nearby teeming with those who got there before us, those in the distance lined with armed guards.
On a temporary stage in a pit between the dunes, a local band is tearing through a funky set before an ecstatic crowd. Having spent the week watching films, I now feel like I’ve stepped inside one.
On our final morning, we wake up before dawn and drive westward for five hours, crossing from Algeria into the sliver of Western Sahara that’s been liberated from the Moroccans, carefully skirting landmines until we reach the wall. It is a stark reminder of why the festival, and the 40-year-old refugee camp that hosts it, exist at all.
This brute display of military strength brings home the importance of FiSahara as a loudspeaker for Sahrawi voices. As long as the name of Western Sahara evokes nothing for the international community, little will change.