Sahwari attendants to the festival, and their international guests, during one of the screenings. Source: Fisahara´s official website
For a few months now, I´ve been working with a team of journalists, artists and movie makers on the organization of FISAHARA - Festival Internacional de Cine del Sahara, that will take place between October 8-13. I have to admit that I didn´t not know so much about the festival until I joined the communications team this spring, although it has been going on for 10 years. In 2010, The Guardian named it “the world´s most remote film festival.”
FiSahara takes place in Dakhla, the most isolated of four camps, 130 miles from the nearest town and home to around 30,000 Saharawi refugees. There are no paved roads, no sources of water, no vegetation and in summer, temperatures can reach 50°C. And yet once a year a multiplex-sized screen rolls up on the side of an articulated lorry, a tented village springs up in the centre of the camp and hundreds of actors, directors and film industry insiders fly in from around the world for a programme of more than 30 films, some made by the refugees themselves.
This year, the festival will aim to reach out to an even wider audience in order to bring attention to the forsaken struggle of the Saharawi people. It also seeks to frame this struggle within the regional movement that has pushed millions of citizens of the Middle East and North Africa to demand freedom, justice and dignity since 2011. In fact, many find the root of the so-called Arab Spring in the Western Sahara, back in 2010, when the indigenous Saharawi population demonstrated against the occupying Moroccan authorities. Their demonstrations were violently put down, and eleven Saharawis were killed.
Despite the increasing threats, violence and suffering the region faces, the struggle against oppression that was at the core of the 2011 mobilizations remains, more than ever, a legitimate one. Creating and fostering bonds and networks between civil activists in the Sahara, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and the rest of the MENA region is crucial to strengthen citizen voices against tyranny, whether this comes from fascist and so-called secular regimes or islamist threats. Many journalists, activists and movie makers from the region will join this festival´s edition. We are very proud of all of them, but there is one who is particularly inspiring.
Nadir Bouchmouch is a Moroccan activist who has been very involved in the February 20 movement since early 2011. His 40-minute documentary, Makhzen and Me, which shows the counter-attack by the Moroccan authorities as a response to the popular uprising, will be featured at the festival. Last week, he wrote the following message on his facebook page, which speaks louder than anything we may add:
This festival is particularly meaningful for me to go to because I have had enough of self-censoring myself on the Western Sahara issue. The refugees I will be working with are refugees because my country, Morocco, is occupying their land. This is why it is particularly symbolic that I am working with Guy Davidi, an Israeli who supports the Palestinian cause. I always hope more Israelis take action to support Palestinians, but how can I not expect the same from myself regarding Western Saharans? It’s almost the same issue: an occupier and an occupied, a settler-population and a refugee population… I was brainwashed for years to believe the Western Sahara was Moroccan, but says who? King Hassan II? Our state-owned TV channels? Our government-controlled history textbooks?
I will no longer be an accomplice, through silence, with the Moroccan regime of occupation of the Western Sahara. From here on, I will be loyal and consistent to my belief in democracy, human rights and equality for all. I will condemn the occupation and I will be a voice within Moroccan society that will choose to no longer be silent nor afraid. #FreeWesternSahara
Egyptian demonstrators hold a banner reading "From Tahrir to Sol, democracy for all"
My contribution to the International Conference on Non-Violence.
Tunisia, 1-3 November 2012:
Reactions to the Arab Spring and the way strategic powers have tried to profit from changes in the region do not leave much room for trust in governmental support. When we mobilize as citizens, whether it is in Egypt, Syria, Spain or the US, we are questioning the roots of power systems and structures, so it is not very realistic to expect we can go to those same systems and structures for support and solidarity.
We should expect to count on citizen support and solidarity. We have shared this solidarity in a very exciting way, since mobilizations that started in Tunisia spread to other MENA countries and then, with different connotations, to Europe, the US, and the rest of the world. All these movements shared the same hunger for change, for new forms of representation, for a re-definition of the concept “citizenship”.
The differences between demonstrating in a democratic country such as Spain and in openly repressive countries such as Syria or Iran are obvious, and we can all see the repercusions in real-life time. We do share, however, a need for change, a will for change led by young people who do not feel represented by old systems and structures. This can be seen through the new narrative citizens are creating using new media within a context of growing distrust of traditional media.
Even though the common ground is clear and citizen solidarity has helped ignite change throughout the region and the rest of the world, over the last months we have witnessed attempts (media, political) to divide us, to highlight what separates us instead of our bonds and shared values. Some of these attempts to divide us have succeeded.
Syrian activists have seen with great sadness and disappointment how our legitimate reivindications of freedom and justice have been undermined by geostrategic analysis that disregard the repression we have been facing for decades. We have been shocked to discover a so-called “anti-imperialist” discourse that distinguishes between people who have the right to rise against oppression and those who don´t.
Syria has gone from being an information black hole to becoming number one Youtube-video producer in the region. By recording and sharing with the world the events that they are witnessing, Syrians are risking their lives to send an SOS message that no one seems to be listening to, including the ones who have stood against oppression in other cases of human rights abuses. They say the Syrian revolution has gotten contaminated by international interests. Is this our fault? Do Syrians have to deal not only with being bombed, tortured, arrested, displaced, humiliated? Do we also have to be held responsible for attempts by others to profit from our suffering?
Since March 2011 Syrians have been teaching the world a lesson of non-violence. Even though this movement was faced with crackdown by the government and there is now an armed rebellion that emerged months after the beginning of the revolution, non-violence movements and initiatives continue to exist in Syria, facing unprecedented brutality. There are countless examples, the “Stop the killing” movement is just one of them:
Syrian activist Rima Dali holding a "Stop the killing" banner in Damascus
The non-violence movement will continue to lose ground as mainstream media and political agendas focus on geostrategic and military aspects and undermine many Syrian voices on the ground. Syrian voices, MENA citizens´voices, citizen voices all over the world are now easier to reach than they ever were, and yet many continue to look for intermediaries and geostrategic analysis that disregard the Syrian context and dynamics.
1. Let´s listen to citizen voices. To different, diverse citizen voices. Especially to young citizens who are leading movements and changes that the older generations did not see possible. Here are just a few examples of sites and platforms I follow, but there are countless others:
Image from the group of art designers "Syrian people know their way"
2. Let´s silence governments who silence citizens. Governments who kill, torture and silence journalists are not reliable. Let´s not go to them for quotes and insights on how to solve the problems that they created.
3. Language is sensitive. Language contributes to configuring and (de)legitimizing our movements
- Dictator vs. president
- Thugs / Mafia vs. police / authorities
- Assad´s army vs. security forces
- Neo-liberal vs. anti-imperialist
- Human rights abuses vs. sectarianism and hatred
- Revolution vs. civil war
4. Let´s build our own networks
The Internet allows for bonds and interaction that were very difficult until very recently. Let´s use all the tools at our disposal to work together and join efforts. Coordination and citizen bonds have been crucial for revolutions to spread the way they did during 2011.
5. Let´s focus on the universal values our movements stand up for: freedom of expression, social justice, women´s rights, struggle against corruption, non-violence. Let´s not fall into geostrategic traps, let´s run away from the view of the world “in two blocks” (“imperalist” vs. “anti-imperialist”) which does not adjust to our complex and diverse realities. Human rights do not belong to any particular people, group or country, and those who abuse human rights do not either.