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CULTURE-AUSTRALIA: Film on ‘Slavery’ Ignites Controversy

Neena Bhandari

SYDNEY, Jul 24 2009 (IPS) - ‘Stolen’, an Australian documentary film that premiered at the Sydney Film Festival last month, has ignited a controversy with its claims on slavery in the refugee camps of Western Sahara. The main protagonist has denounced the film for her portrayal as a ‘slave’, but the filmmakers say they stand by their version of the story “one hundred per cent”.

‘Stolen’ is now scheduled for screening on July 31 at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) which kicks off on July 24.

The 80-minute film, co-directed by Sydney-based filmmakers, Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw, is set mainly in the Tindouf refugee camps in south-west Algeria, where 160,000 Saharawi people have lived since the Moroccan invasion in 1975.

It features the story of Fetim Sellami, 36, and her family, who live in a refugee camp in the Algerian Sahara desert. Sellami, who was separated from her mother at the age of three, is reunited with her biological mother through a family reunion program, organised by the U.N. since 2004.

“We wanted to highlight the refugees’ struggle through the eyes of one family. The purpose was to help people tell their own stories. We did not set out to make a film about slavery. It was only disclosed to us after three trips and two months in the camps”, said the filmmakers.

But the subjects of the film are scathing in their criticism of this documentary.

With assistance from the independence movement that runs the camps, Sellami and her husband Baba Hocine, 46, visited Sydney and Melbourne in June to denounce the former’s depiction in the documentary as a ‘slave’. A mother of four children, Sellami works as a pre-school teacher in the camps. She vehemently rejects the allegation that slavery is widespread there.

“I came here to clear my name and restore dignity of Saharawi people. The film has affected my community and national cause”, Sellami told IPS in her native Hassaniya dialect.

But the filmmakers are firm on their stance.

“It is a very personal film that also chronicles our experiences of filming,” said Ayala. “[While filming], we discovered slavery existed. We want the story to speak for itself.”

However, Sellami isn’t the only one accusing Ayala and Fallshaw of distorting reality.

David Dorward, the former head of African Studies at Melbourne’s La Trobe University says, “The Film really buys into Moroccan propaganda”.

About 68 per cent of Western Sahara is occupied by Morocco and 32 per cent is controlled by the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic led by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario). Backed by Algeria, the Polisario governs the refugee camps and it has been striving for independence for Western Sahara through a U.N. sponsored referendum.

“It [the film] doesn’t adequately deal with ingrained cultural complexities,” Dorward said.

Traditionally in the Sahara, he points out, there were those who claim to be Arabs or Indigenous Berbers and descendants of what were once slaves.

“Legally, the descendants of slaves have [equal rights], but in reality they are second class citizens right across Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania,” he said. “What they are talking about is racial prejudice. The film takes the notion of slavery and imposes a Western view of a much more complex caste system.”

However, a Human Rights Watch report released in December 2008 points out that “residual slavery practices continue to affect some black residents of the Tindouf camps”, including “the refusal by some local personal-status judges (qadi’s) to perform the act of marriage for black women informally designated as ‘slaves’ unless their ‘owners’ give their consent. A ‘master’ is thus able to block a woman’s choice of a husband”.

Sellami, though, who had a traditional Saharawi marriage, says the situation isn’t that grim.

“Couples get together, assess whether they are compatible, then the boy’s family asks the women’s family for the girl’s hand in marriage,” she said. “The man’s family takes care of the first wedding party and the girl’s family pays for setting up the couple’s new home. There is strong support from the community”.

Dr Meredith Burgmann, the former Speaker of New South Wales State Legislative Council, who visited the camps in 2004 as part of an Australian delegation of parliamentarians, concurs that the women in the camps are “often in decision making roles in schools, health clinics.”

“We met three women ministers in the Polisario government,” she told IPS. “They were talented, educated and confident. People were incredibly open and invited us into their homes. There are several international agencies operating in the camps. If slavery was happening, the international agencies would know about it.”

Tom Zubrycki, the film’s producer, however, insists that “filmmakers have to trust their instincts and go where the story takes them.”

“What this film does is what every documentary should do – to question without passing judgment,” he said.

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