Several years ago, I visited Casablanca in Morocco for a few days. What I remember most about that trip is the Hassan II mosque, the largest mosque in the world that non-Muslims are allowed to enter. Perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, with a towering, mechanised ceiling that can open to allow the 100,000 people who can be accommodated within it to pray beneath the clouds, the mosque is awe-inspiring. 

I had little idea at the time that the person who commissioned that beautiful mosque – King Hassan II, the regent of Morocco from 1961 to 1999 – had been instrumental in another momentous edifice: a 2,000km wall built on his country’s border with Algeria, guarded by 100,000 Moroccan troops and surrounded by 5 million land mines. This wall exists; the king built it in the 1980s because he was terrified that the phosphate-rich, sea-lined land which he had taken from the Sahrawi people – the Western Sahara – was going to be reclaimed by its indigenous inhabitants, most of whom he had forced, since 1975, to live in refugee camps in Algeria.

It took the film, The Problem (2011), for me to learn of the plight of the Sahrawi, a dispossessed people whose cause has been recognised by leading human rights organisations. I was so moved by this film that I programmed it at Film Africa last year, where it screened to audiences who seemed to share my dismay that such flagrant abuse of human rights has been going on for so long with so little public awareness globally.

As became clear from this experience, film festivals are one of the most important sites of activism for the Sahrawi cause. This year, we are showing two more films about the Western Sahara issue at Film Africa 2012: the exclusive preview screening of The Runner, followed by a Q&A with the director Saeed T. Farouky. Here’s the trailer:

And the UK premiere of Sons of the Clouds (2012), followed by a Q&A with activist Danielle Smith. This film in fact originated at a film festival itself – the FiSahara film festival; it was while attending this festival in 2008 that Javier Bardem was converted into an activist for the Sahrawi cause and decided to make the film. The trailer:

As all three films show, thousands of Sahrawi have been living in dire conditions in refugee camps in southern Algeria since 1975. The Problem and Sons of the Clouds also reveal the origin of these camps: the Sahrawis’ expulsion from Western Sahara because of the Moroccan ‘Green March’. On 6 November, 1975, Hassan II gathered 300,000 Moroccans to move from the north to the south of the country to take over the Western Sahara, which – as Spain departed – he suddenly announced had always been a southern province of Morocco. The mind-blowing archival footage of the Green March shown in Sons of the Clouds makes it look like a celebration: women and children wave flags; smiling people lean out of car and train windows. As one of the interviewees in Sons of the Clouds says, ‘There were flags, feasts, mechui, couscous … It was amazing.’ But, for the Sahrawi people, it meant the beginning of decades of turmoil. For those who stayed in Morocco-occupied Western Sahara and didn’t flee to Algerian refugee camps, it has been a tenuous existence, with frequent reports from activists of police brutality and even torture.

The beautiful phrase ‘sons of the clouds’ refers to the way the Sahrawi people think of themselves; originally a nomadic people, they followed the clouds through the hot, dry Sahara desert, until they made the Western Sahara home. The sense of freedom this phrase creates contrasts with the brutality and greed of the peoples who have exploited the Sahrawi – the Spanish, who colonized Western Sahara from the late 1800s to 1975, and the Moroccans, colonizers of Western Sahara since 1975. Both nations have no doubt wanted access to Western Sahara’s phosphate deposits (which were first discovered in 1949) and to fishing rights off the coast of the Western Sahara.

What makes Sons of the Clouds and The Runner so interesting as films is that they relate not only the traumatic history of the Sahrawi, but also the process of how individual people become politicized to a cause. The Runner gives us rare insight into, and the view of, a home-grown activist for the Sahrawi cause: athletic champion and freedom fighter Salah Ameidan. Sons of the Clouds, in contrast, is guided by the view of movie star Bardem, who is the producer of, and features in, the film. As Bardem says of his experience at the FiSahara film festival, which is – to my knowledge – the only film festival that takes place in a refugee camp: ‘You live with [the Sahrawi] in their tents, you listen to them … and a very strong sense of injustice fills you.’

I couldn’t watch The Problem, Sons of the Clouds or The Runner without, similarly, being filled with a sense of injustice. And I couldn’t believe that only a handful of people I spoke to knew about this injustice. These may be films – second-hand experiences – but the evidence presented here is completely convincing.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.