For the past thirteen years, the Western Sahara International Film Festival (FiSahara) has been screening movies annually for thousands of Sahrawi refugees who live in a remote corner of the Sahara Desert, near the Algerian town of Tindouf -- a place where films are rarely seen. But after this edition on October 11-16, refugees will no longer have to wait an entire year to congregate in front of movie screens: FiSahara and Solar World Cinema have partnered to create Solar Cinema Western Sahara, that will tour the camps year-round, making film much more available to camp residents.
Solar Cinema Western Sahara will launch on FiSahara's opening night, October 12th in the Dakhla refugee camp, with the screening of the documentary film Sonita by Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, an extraordinary story of courage and audacity featuring a young teenage girl, Sonita Alizadeh, who as an undocumented Afghan in Iran struggles against the odds to avoid child marriage and realize her dream of becoming a rap star. Ghaem Maghami will be at FiSahara to present. Sonita is one of the films that will travel with the Solar Cinema Western Sahara to all Saharawi refugee camps in the area during this coming year. The project will be managed by a local Sahrawi team.
The Sahrawi mobile cinema will use a converted Landcruiser fitted with solar panels, batteries and screening equipment that recently travelled from the Netherlands to the camps as part of a humanitarian convoy.
Sahrawis in the camps are the refugees of the four-decade conflict in Western Sahara, which remains one of the world’s most invisible crises. The Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony rich in natural resources, stretches along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean between Morocco and Mauritania. Spain reached an agreement with Morocco and Mauritania as it was withdrawing, allowing them to invade. Half of the indigenous population fled the brutal invasion into the Algerian desert and settled in refugee camps, where they remain today. The other half still lives under Moroccan occupation -- Mauritania withdrew in 1979 -- separated from family members by a 2.600 kilometer-long Moroco-built wall sewn with millions of landmines. The UN Security Council, which called for a referendum on self-determination 25 years ago, is currently deadlocked on a solution. Access to basic services such as drinking water, electricity and food is scarce in the refugee camps, and its residents are entirely dependent on foreign humanitarian aid. The population has very little access to culture, leisure and entertainment and suffers from extreme social and geographic isolation. Children and youth are especially vulnerable to depression as they view their future devoid of opportunity and hope.
Film is a powerful tool for social change, and for Sahrawis it offers a respite from the harshness of everyday life, as well as a window to the world and a medium to preserve their rich cultural identity -- which is key to their survival as a people. FiSahara's film school, EFA Abidin Kaid Saleh, trains dozens of Sahrawi filmmakers, who are giving birth to a brand-new indigenous Sahrawi cinematography. Through the screenings of these locally made films, Solar Cinema preserves and showcases Sahrawi identity.
In addition, Solar Cinema Western Sahara will also screen a variety of films, including independent international cinema, human rights and entertainment movies, some from FiSahara's program. Sahrawis will be able to exchange locally made films with other Solar Cinema projects, providing a rich tapestry of stories from around the world. Local managers will receive technical training to operate the cinema, as well as to organize and moderate panel discussions.
This year, as FiSahara's screens in Dakhla go dark at the close of the festival, they will light up again and again all year round powered by the only natural resource available to the refugees: sunlight!