Untold story

Stefan Simanowitz goes to the pictures with the people of Western Sahara.

The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti has written that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story. The Saharawi refugee population who have lived in camps in the Algerian desert for more than 35 years have had little opportunity to tell their story, but this is set to change. In May, a radio, film and television school was opened in one of the four refugee camps that house about 165,000 refugees originally from the disputed territory of Western Sahara. The school will provide equipment and offer technical training and was heralded by Y Lamine Baali of the Saharawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front, as "an important moment in our struggle for freedom".

The opening ceremony of the school was timed to coincide with the final day of the Festival de Cine del Sahara - known as FiSahara. The FiSahara film festival takes place each year in Dakhla, a sprawling single-storey refugee camp in the desert 130 miles from the nearest town. There are no paved roads and the wide, sandy streets are lined with rectangular mud houses and tents forming neat family compounds. Dakhla is entirely dependent on outside supplies of food and water, and in the summer months temperatures regularly reach 50°C. With sandstorms and little vegetation, it is little wonder that the area is known locally as "the devil's garden".

Despite its unpromising location, the film festival attracts more than 400 actors, producers and film industry insiders from around the world. As well as attempting to highlight the humanitarian crisis resulting from Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara, FiSahara provides the refugees with educational opportunities. This year there were over a dozen audio­visual training workshops, ranging from sound editing to film archiving. Now in its seventh year, the festival also offers the refugees a rare chance to go to the movies.

It takes place in a spacious area in the centre of the camp with a multiplex-sized outdoor screen attached to the side of an articulated lorry. This is surrounded by tents for workshops, exhibitions and indoor screenings, as well as numerous stalls. Each year, the programme includes more than 30 films from other countries around the world, together with several movies made about and by the Saharawi people. These are particularly popular with the refugees; and so are those films that reflect the lives of other nomadic peoples, such as Desert Flower, which tells the story of a Somali child who goes on to become a supermodel. But if there were an audience prize, it would have gone this year to Planet 51, an animated Spanish film about an ­astronaut's visit to an alien world. The desert night echoed with the laughter of children.

This year, for the first time, a flight was arranged from London and more than 20 British actors took part in a workshop showing potential Saharawi film-makers how to work with actors. It is this form of cultural exchange that makes FiSahara so remarkable. All visitors, including the celebrities, stay with Saharawi families, sleeping in their homes, sharing camel stew and couscous, and drinking endless glasses of sweet tea. For Robert Griffin, a photographer from Hove, the highlight of FiSahara was spending time with the refugees. "Despite living in such harsh circumstances," he said, "they have not lost their sense of humanity, optimism, hope, or their humour."

In addition to workshops and films, activities included a football match between the visitors and local people, a camel race, a moonlit party in the dunes and a concert by the Spanish musician Iván Ferreiro. But no matter how much fun participants have, no one forgets why they are there. Drawing a parallel between the Saharawi struggle and the fight against apartheid, Kaya Somgqeza, chargé d'affaires at the South African embassy in Algiers, told a crowd at the festival's closing ceremony, "We cannot regard the continent of Africa as free until Western Sahara is liberated." As with most stories, however, no one knows how this one will end.

Stefan Simanowitz is chair of the Free Western Sahara Network (freesahara.ning.com)

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party