- by Rahul Chadha, April 07, 2011
The morality issue at play in the film Stolen is Manichean in its clarity—slavery is unarguably one of the most abhorrent crimes that humanity can perpetrate against itself. But as filmmakers Dan Fallshaw and Violeta Ayala discovered, the politics of sharing the stories of slavery they encountered in Polisario Front-run refugee camps in Algeria proved to be much more complicated. After traveling to the camps to document a family reunion in verite style, Ayala and Fallshaw were forced to make a hard turn after being told tales of modern-day oppression; the second half of the film shifts into thriller territory as we watch the pair struggle to tell the film’s story, while also navigating the minefield politics engulfing the continued conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front. The filmmakers have since come under heavy criticism from some quarters for their handling of the film’s subjects, who later withdrew their consent to appear in the film. But it’s difficult to figure out how much of this and other attacks originated with the Polisario Front itself, which was resistant to admitting to the existence of slavery traditions in their refugee camps. Stolen perhaps raises more questions than it answers, but does so in the tradition of the best sort of political art. As always, it remains to the viewer to decide exactly where the truth lies. Following the screening, STF Artistic Director Thom Powers spoke with Fallshaw and Ayala. Click “Read more” below for the Q&A.
(Photo: from left, Thom Powers, Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw, courtesy of Simon Luethi)
STF: The film was finished two years ago, can you bring us up to date with what’s been happening with you and this film, and with the situations in this film?
Dan Fallshaw: The film’s been touring all over the world. It’s been to about 60 or 70 festivals now. We’re still pushing to get it broadcast. With regards to the characters in the camps, they’re still in the camps. Nothing has changed with regard to their lives. There’s more attention on this issue now, and there are more people talking about slavery in the camps and slavery in Western Sahara. It’s funny because when we finished I thought, great, we’re finished with this film, we’re going to get this out there and people are going to talk about this issue and things are going to really change. Two years later it’s essentially the same, only now people know about it.
STF: You were faced with the character Faitim in the film coming out later and contradicting things in the film. Can you talk about that experience?
Fallshaw: When we went to Sydney—it’s in the film, you saw it and know how we felt.
Violeta Ayala: It’s really very tough because we, in a sense, did this for Faitim and her children, and everyone else in those camps. I know that in a sense the film has improved her life because the Polisario tried to prove that slavery does not exist. So they say Faitim is not a slave, and she can travel and everyone can visit her in the camps. Every NGO, every person who comes from overseas goes and sees her, so she’s a little celebrity in the camp. But the other characters are not, and I don’t know what’s going on with them, or what happened to them. We felt sad, but if I go back two years, I would have done the same exact thing. Because I believe that it’s not Faitim who is against the film. Faitim was smiling watching the film in Sydney. I was behind her and I could see her, she was smiling. And she told her mother, at the time, that we didn’t put half the things we told her about slavery in the film, and that she was safe. It was the other ones who were in trouble.
Audience: I’ve been filming a lot in Algeria too and I was surprised because you did show the interviews of the people who incriminated themselves by testifying against slavery who then withdrew their support. I filmed a bunch of gay guys I was staying with in northeast Algeria. They said, you can use this, just don’t let anyone in Algeria see it.
STF: Can you address that difficult choice about what to include?
Fallshaw: In the camps everybody made it clear that they wanted to speak up. Matala and his friends came to Mauritania and they were afraid but they wanted to say something because they were sick and tired of things being like this in the camps. The Polisario knew who we were making the film with.
Ayala: We had a Polisario driver who was our minder who was following us all the time. I remember [an interviewee] said to me, I’d rather die than have my children taken away from me, than being raped by an Arab. I’d rather die, and I don’t want to continue like this. And please repeat everything that I’m saying. And we didn’t. People said a lot more than we’re telling you, but we had to protect them. I think if we didn’t make the film, if we didn’t put in what they want, we would be accomplices to the slavery, and this would happen for another 100, 200 years more.
Audience: I’ve spent time in the camps, I was there just this last October-November. One thing that disturbed me in watching the film is a kind of over-generalization. First of all, nobody denies that there has been slavery in this part of the world. What I found interesting is that your focus is on the Polisario and the camps, with a little side thing to occupied territory. The U.N. woman, I’ve seen a larger interview with her about this issue, and she’s saying it’s basically a cultural issue. Nobody denies that slavery exists in this part of the world. The focus of the movie though is that the Polisario is supporting it and maintaining it. That’s what I get from the film. So you keep talking about Polisario and slavery in the camp as if it’s an accepted practice that they’re trying to keep hush hush, when in fact I think it’s a lot more complex than that. I also noticed some mistranslations, and just generalizations. That last scene for example, what was that supposed to say? When it said all we want is liberation and peace? Was she speaking about slavery, writing in the sand?
Fallshaw: The Polisario made their own role in the film, and that’s really what it comes down to. When we first learned about slavery in the camps, we went to the Polisario, naively, and said, can this be happening? We went there in support of the Polisario to make a film about their fight for Western Sahara and we found something different. The problem was, we couldn’t just turn our backs on that. We were detained in the camps because of this. We had to leave the camps because of this. When we went to Western Sahara, we found the same thing there, and we couldn’t say, oh no, it doesn’t exist. So in effect, what you’re saying is about us focusing on the Polisario. We made a film that says slavery exists in the camps, slavery exists in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.
Audience: And Mauritania, and Niger and Senegal—the whole area. It’s a broad problem.
Fallshaw: I absolutely agree. The thing is, nobody’s talking about it.
Ayala: We didn’t go to these camps to make a film about slavery. We went there to make a film about a family reunion, and that’s what we found. And Matala and all of them told us their stories, and I’m not going to turn my back on them. We also made effort to go to Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, but not to find slavery. We went to talk to Faitim’s mother and find the story from her. And it happened that the black people there were ready to tell their stories to us. We had 20 hours of footage stolen from us, and exchanged for blank tapes.
Fallshaw: This is something that these regimes, these governments, these monarchies really don’t want to talk about.
Ayala: And the Polisario has been attacking us, what can we do about it. They made their own role in the film. What Leil writes in the sand, I think it’s up to each person to interpret it.
Audience: It’s a nationalist phrase—
Fallshaw: So you’re telling me you know what Leil was thinking. I’m not even pretending to know what she was thinking, but you are.
Audience: She wrote a nationalist, liberation phrase. I spoke with the Polisario ambassador in D.C. about your film, and I said, what is this about slavery. And he said, slavery exists still in Western Sahara, no denial.
Fallshaw: So why are they trying to shut the film down?
Audience: It’s absolutely illegal there, they do not accept it. It’s a cultural condition—
Fallshaw: Then why are the black people coming to us to say, help us?
Audience: Because there’s racism there. I experienced racism throughout the whole area.
Ayala: But there is a liberation [document] published in the Human Rights Watch report, that says, from this day on the neck of this man is free. And it’s signed by the minister of religious and culture affairs of the Polisario. If this is not an institution than what is it? If it’s illegal, then why on earth is the minister of religion and cultural affairs of the Polisario signing these kinds of documents? It happens in the whole area, we’re not saying it doesn’t happen. But the Polisario need to be held accountable for this, and they need to change. If they say it’s illegal, they need to put some rules, that’s all we want.
Audience: I think it’s a really brave film and you’ve certainly done a good service to your characters, so I commend you for that. I’ve also filmed in the Polisario camps, and I have a lot of friends within the Polisario and outside of the Polisario. I think you left a very important issue out of the film, which makes a large difference. The Polisario army is a government in exile which is not recognized by the international community. It’s an army acting as a government, there’s no democratic space. They’ve been fighting to have their territory given back to them for 35 years. The reason the Polisario was the bad guy in your story is pretty obvious. Anything that talks badly about the Polisario is going to put them in a weaker position to negotiate any possibility to go back to their territory.
STF: Can you talk about the politics of the Polisario and how that affects their position?
Fallshaw: The Polisario are a liberation front, and a left-wing organization fighting for the Western Sahara against Morocco, before it was Spain. And we went to make a film in support of this. But we found something different. The Polisario can be whatever. I’m not against their politics, I’m not against their fight for Western Sahara. What I’m against is that black people in these refugee camps are living in conditions of slavery in which they do not want to live anymore. And they want it to change. When the film was finished, when we went to the Polisario, I thought they would say, we have to fix this, we have to change, we have to bring people in and investigate and do all these things. Why not? If they’re now saying, it exists, it’s a problem, it’s illegal, then stand up and say, slavery is a problem here, it’s illegal, we’re going to get rid of it.
Ayala: I believe two wrongs don’t make a right. There are a lot of people supporting the Polisario’s liberation struggle. Nobody talks about slavery in this area. I’m sorry for the Polisario, I feel very sad that this is happening in their territory, in their land, as well as in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. I’m not going to say, these guys are fighting for independence. I don’t know what I believe anymore about that conflict, I just want the people in Western Sahara and all northern Africa to be free, that’s all.
Audience: I wonder if you could define just what your definition of slavery means.
Fallshaw: When you talk about slavery, people imagine chains, they imagine whips. This is not slavery like that. The chains are in your mind. Faitim loves Deido as much as she loves herself. But Deido took her away from her parents. Deido’s father bought Embarka in a market in Mauritania when she was a little girl, and took her back to Western Sahara to serve his family. She then had children. Those children are then born slaves because their mother’s a slave. Faitim is one of those children. The father gave Faitim to his daughter as a present, and she took her to the refugee camps. These are the facts of slavery, this is what happens. Then Faitim serves Deido her whole life, does what Deido wants.
Ayala: Also they say they’re beaten. Matala told us a story about a little boy who the mother wanted to take away from the master. And the master beat the mother. Then the police came and said to the mother, the boy belongs to him so you have to go home. There’s a variation from family to family. In Mauritania there was a slave who was sent by his master to study in Paris to become an architect. He came back to Mauritania and is now one of the biggest fighters against slavery. He said, it doesn’t matter if they put me in a palace, they took me away from my mother and father, from my real, biological family. They get beaten, they get taken away. The man has rights over the women, they can rape them whenever they want. Some masters are good to them, and some masters are bad to them. [A character] said at the end, they think we’re like dogs, that we don’t have feelings like them.
[Q&A has been edited for length and clarity]
STOLEN by Violeta Ayala, Dan Fallshaw