In 2006, Australian filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw went to a Polisario refugee camp in the Western Sahara expecting to film a family reunion. While on their final visit, they stumbled upon evidence of slavery. In less than 10 days, they had completely changed the topic of their documentary.
“We found something that wasn’t supposed to be found out,” said Ayala.
The rest of Stolen follows Ayala and Fallshaw as they uncover the truth behind slavery in the Western Sahara, a journey that leads them through three continents, a detainment and dozens of smuggled videocassette tapes.
The Western Sahara is a region of conflict. Moroccan takeover of the territory in the 1970s caused many Sahrawis, people from the Western Sahara, to flee to the deserts, where they still live now in refugee camps run by the Polisario, a Sahrawi national liberation front and the government of the area. The Western Sahara is also one of the few regions in Africa where Spanish is spoken.
Stolen is a real-life thriller, but at the centre of it lies a human story. That story is Fetim, a black Sahrawi in a mostly Arab refugee camp. She lives with her three daughters, but hasn’t seen her own mother in over 30 years, when they were separated while fleeing the Moroccan occupation.
Fetim has been allowed to reunite with her mother for five days, thanks to a UN program that hopes to ease tensions between Morocco and the Polisario. In the time before the reunion, Ayala and Fallshaw noticed that Fetim seemed to be doing the housework both for her household and that of a woman Fetim’s daughter referred to as her “white grandmother,” without pay.
Discrimination became even more evident when Ayala and Fallshaw showed their footage to a Polisario leader. According to Ayala, he jokingly commented: “Fetim’s younger daughter looks like a monkey.” Ayala claimed Leil, Fetim’s 15-year-old daughter, broke the silence about slavery in the area. In the film, Leil tells Ayala, “Here, no one goes to jail for having slaves.”
Ayala and Fallshaw were shocked. “I came here believing in the Polisario’s cause,” narrated Ayala in the film. “It didn’t make any sense to me that a liberation movement fighting for freedom appeared to condone slavery.”
Since its release one year ago, the movie has become controversial, with attempts by the Polisario and its supporters to discredit it. Fallshaw explained that most of the allegations of falsehoods come from the translation. However, Bolivian-born Ayala exclaimed, “70 per cent of the discussions of slavery are in Spanish.”
Ayala and Fallshaw insist Stolen does not have a political agenda. “The film isn’t against the Polisario, it just says that slavery is a problem,” stated Ayala. “All we’re asking is to listen to the film and take action, but they’re blaming the messenger,” Fallshaw added.
The Polisario even sent Fetim to the premiere of the documentary in Sydney, Australia. “We weren’t surprised, but it was a very strange situation,” said Dan. “The last time we saw her, we were living with her.” Ayala said she would joke with Fetim about traveling to festivals for the film; the situation felt oddly ironic.
However, Ayala believes things can change in the Western Sahara. “If there’s a place where this issue can be resolved first, it’s in this place.” According to her, the Polisario depends on international aid, and there is a possibility for countries to give the liberation front more conditions for receiving this aid.
“It’s time everyone who knows takes responsibility,” Ayala concluded.
This article was originally published in The Concordian.