"The Devil's Garden": Preview of the Sahara Film Festival

May 03, 2009
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Dahkla, an isolated refugee camp in the Sahara desert, is not the most likely setting for an international film festival. And yet for five days in the coming week (from 5th - 11th May), this desolate camp in south western Algeria will be transformed into a gala of screenings, workshops and concerts attended by an array of internationally acclaimed actors and film makers. Now in its sixth year, the Sahara International Film Festival is gaining renown, helped by the support of actors such as Javier Bardem, whose visit last year ensured that the festival even secured a half-page spread in OK! magazine.

Over the coming day’s I’ll be reporting on the festival, which has the two-fold aim of providing cultural entertainment and educational opportunities to refugees, and of raising awareness of the plight of the Sahrawi people, who have been exiled from their native western Sahara for more than three decades. Western Sahara, “Africa’s last colony,” was sold to Morocco and Mauritania by the Spanish when they withdrew in 1975. The Moroccans subsequently annexed the entire territory in defiance of a ruling from the International Court of Justice.

A sixteen-year war ensued between the Moroccans and the Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario Front. Under the terms of a 1991 UN ceasefire agreement, a referendum for self determination was promised, but has been blocked by the Morocco. In the meantime an estimated 165,000 refugees continue to live in four large camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert.

Home to nearly 30,000 refugees, Dakhla is the most remote of the camps, located 175km away from the nearest city, Tindouf. It has no electricity or paved roads and is dependent on outside supplies of food and water. The weather forecast suggests I can expect temperatures in the high ’90s, although summer temperatures on the hammada desert plain regularly top 120 degrees. With sandstorms, little vegetation and no sources of food or water, it is little wonder that the area is known locally as “The Devil’s Garden.”

Those attending the festival, however, are not expecting creature comforts. They are going in order to take part in a range of workshops, exhibitions and screenings. At the end of the festival, a popular jury will award the best picture the White Camel: an award that symbolises the hope of the Sahrawi people for self determination and reminds the world of an otherwise forgotten conflict.