By Cynthia Fuchs 5 April 2011
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
You can’t change these ideas until you get out and see other possibilities.
“Is it true my white grandmother beat you as a child?” asks 15-year-old Leil, Her mother, Fetim, looks at her hard, still chewing her lunch. They sit at a table, a TV behind them, as well as a doorway, open onto a bright white daylight. Leil continues, “Violeta already knows,” as the camera cuts to filmmaker Violeta Ayala, seated across from them. Her face turns cloudy as she listens: “You’ll be in trouble, by saying that we were beaten,” cautions Fetim. Again, the camera shows her instructing her daughter, “It’s always been that slaves are beaten from a young age.”
The scene breaks here, as Leil gets up to welcome a younger sibling inside, through that bright-lit doorway. And the film, Stolen, has changed. Before this moment, as Ayala has narrated, the documentary was observing preparations for a family reunion. Fetim had come to a refugee camp in the Algerian desert as a child some 30 years ago, leaving behind her Moroccan mother Embarka and her siblings. At first, Ayala says, she and Dan Fallshaw meant to film Spanish-speaking refugees in the Western Sahara, and felt lucky to have access to a family about to reunite, thanks to a program initiated in 2004 by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees that brings Moroccan family members to the camp for five-day visits. With some 27,000 on the waiting list, the fact that Fetim and Embarka have been selected seems miraculous.
And yet: this story is now reframed, as Ayala and Fallshaw learn that their subjects are not only refugees, but also slaves. The filmmakers can’t begin to guess at the complications that follow from this discovery.
Stolen—screening 5 April at Stranger Than Fiction, a co-presentation with the African Film Festival, and followed by a Q&A with Ayala and Fallshaw—charts their efforts to understand what they find. Their questions elicit astonishing and also cryptic stories, as Fetim and Leil, as well as Fetim’s cousin Matala, sort through what is safe to tell “the foreigners.” The storytelling process, as it unfolds on camera, is at once fascinating and alarming, as it becomes clear that saying “too much” is more costly for Fetim than her Australian visitors anticipate.
At the same time, the filmmakers’ parts in the process are also complex, as they are increasingly responsible for what they’re filming—whether by paying for part of the celebration for Embarka’s visit or by documenting stories told by Fetim and her family, descriptions of the system of slavery still in place in the camps and elsewhere. As the film reports, the Polisario Liberation Front, a nationalist organization backed by Algeria, have been fighting with Morocco over the Western Sahara for the last 34 years. Neither the Moroccan government nor the Polisario wants such stories documented. And yet, with at least 2 million black people living in slavery in North Africa, Stolen insists, telling such stories is only a first step.
Indeed, Fetim’s initial revelation that she has a “white mother,” Deido, surprises Ayala, who wonders how they ended “up together, with so much racism in the past?” Deido explains, sort of. “Saharan people are not all the same,” she says, her interview shot as she sits before a striking red tent wall. “Some of them buy black people and own them, others free them, but keep them as their family. We don’t talk about this anymore.”
Still, Ayala and Fallshaw find that some black Africans do talk about this, but only when they are alone together, and for a brief time, in front of the “foreigners.” The film pieces together bits of conversations, a fragmented structure that results from the filmmaking process per se, as the Polisario and then the Moroccans try to confiscate and at last steal their tapes. The effect of the fragments is to the point, however, as the stories are shared and whispered, then covered over or repressed, as experiences are acknowledged and then denied, as autonomy is named—in the form of “liberation,” as Deido says she has granted to Fetim—and then rescinded, when papers are withheld and daily life continues as such.
As Ayala and Fallshaw tell it—their own voiceovers working in tandem, finishing each other’s sentences—they’re struck by Fetim’s submission to Deido, her performance of chores and her lack of independence. Further, though no one will “speak about this,” they also discover that Embarka belonged to Deido’s father, and that she bore him several children. “Deido’s father fucked her,” says Fetim’s friend Jueda after Fetim becomes so unnerved by the conversation that she leaves the room. “That’s how the white girl Fatma was born,” Fatma being Fetim’s sister, still living with Embarka in Morocco.
A friend of Leil, Tizlam, is also outspoken concerning what it means to be a slave. “You’re just scratching the surface,” she says, her face at once poised and fierce in dim shadows. “They come and take the children and the parents can’t say anything, they have no rights.” Her grandmother concurs, and they seem willing to speak, though they don’t seem to expect a change. “There is no law for us,” Tizlam says, “What we want is for this not to exist. It should be erased, it should be from the past, not the present or the future.” Ayala and Fallshaw describe their growing concern, not only for their own safety but also for “all the people who trusted us with their stories.”
Their worries are well founded, as they are detained by the Polisario. The filmmakers bury their tapes in the desert—an apt and awful metaphor for the experiences they’ve heard about—and then escape to Paris, where they pursue the story, hoping to recover their material and make public what they’ve witnessed. A phone call with Leil reveals, however, that their own ambitions and hopes don’t matter much: Leil cries, “Trying to do good, you did bad. Now the police are all over us.” As Ayala ponders this notion in voiceover, that “without intending to, we got Leila and Fetim in a lot of trouble,” the film structure makes clear the problem: she’s in a hotel room, at a distance. None of us can know what Leil and Fetim are experiencing—off camera.
The film traces how Ayala and Fallshaw come to know the ongoing complexities of slavery. As it is denied by most North African regimes (in Mauritania, Mali, and Senegal, as well as Algeria and Morocco) and described here by Ursula Aboubacar, the Deputy Director of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, as “a cultural issue that is existing.” That is, as Aboubacar puts it, the UN can only “combat” the practice by bringing it to the attention of local police forces, the Polisario included. Ayala is horrified by the lack of power wielded by the UN, or anyone else, it seems. Indeed, as Tizlam has said, “There is no law for us.”
The documentary makes this case forcefully. In addition to assembling interviews that officials and others have tried to keep quiet, it includes footage of a screening and audience responses in Sydney. The ethical questions here impossibly tangled: even after Fetim, Leil, and Deido withdraw their consent to appear in the film, Alaya and Fallshaw include not only their interviews, but also footage of Fetim at the film’s premiere (the Polisario, a note explains, “flew Fetim to Sydney to protest at the film’s premiere,” along with her husband). Her objections have led to other repressions, as the Swedish public broadcaster SVT-UR has pulled the movie from its schedule. While the truth remains elusive off-camera, Stolen insists that still more needs to be exposed, that documentation is indeed only a first step.
Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, at George Mason University.