Stolen (2009 documentary film)
|Directed by||Violeta Ayala
|Produced by||Tom Zubrycki
|Written by||Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw|
|Cinematography||Dan Fallshaw and Violeta Ayala|
|Editing by||Dan Fallshaw|
|Running time||78 minutes|
|Language||Spanish, Hassaniya, English|
Stolen is a 2009 Australian documentary film that allegedly uncovers slavery in the Sahrawi refugee camps controlled by the Polisario Front and the Moroccan controlled Western Sahara, written and directed by Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw. It had its world premiere at the 2009 Sydney Film Festival, where a controversy started after one of the participants in the documentary was flown to Australia by the Polisario Liberation Front to say she wasn't a slave. The POLISARIO, avowing that it doesn’t condone slavery and needing to safeguard its image on the world stage to support its independence fight, began an international campaign against the film. It put out its own video denouncing Stolen, in which several people who Ayala and Fallshaw interviewed say they were coerced or paid by the Australian duo.
In 2008 Human Rights Watch published a report confirming that vestiges of slavery still affects the black minority in the Polisario refugee camps and in Western Sahara, the report included a manumission document signed by the POLISARIO’s Ministry of Religious and Cultural Affairs.
Stolen has screened in more than 80 film festivals worldwide including 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, IDFA, Seattle IFF, Glasgow Film Festival, MIFF, One World Film Festival, Docaviv, It's All True, Singapore IFF, Cleveland IFF, Norwegian Short Film Festival, Frontline Club Liberation Season, and Amnesty International Film Festival.
Stolen television premiere on PBS World as part of the Afropop Series hosted by Gabourey Sidibe was initially scheduled for February 5, 2013. Due to the controversy around the film, the broadcast was pushed back. Stolen premiered on February 26, 2013 with a special report that included an interview with the directors.
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 opening 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 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 and the film, Stolen, has changed. Before this moment, as Ayala has narrated, the documentary was to film a UN-sponsored family reunion program between refugees and their families. Fetim had come to a refugee camp in the Algerian desert as a child some 30 years ago, leaving behind her mother Embarka and her siblings. 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 imagine the complications that follow this discovery.
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.”
As the film reports, the Polisario Liberation Front, a nationalist organization backed by Algeria, has been fighting with Morocco over Western Sahara for the last 34 years. Neither the Moroccan government nor the Polisario want stories about slavery 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 to bringing out slavery’s end.
As a result of the filmmaking process whereby the Polisario and the Moroccan government attempt to confiscate and steal the tapes, STOLEN has a fragmented structure that pieces together conversations. The fragments, however, allow the black Sahrawi’s stories to be heard, be it aloud or as a whisper.
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...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.”
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. “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.”
As the Polisario catches wind of the new topic for Ayala and Fallshaw’s film, they begin to worry about their safety and those in the film. 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 Leil 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.”
It should be noted that this film has generated significant controversy over its accuracy. The lead character in the documentary, Fetim, journeyed to the premiere of the documentary at the Sydney Film Festival to denounce its portrayal of her. In later interviews she alleged that the film makers took many of her statements out of context, left out significant details, and often misunderstood when she and others were referring to past rather than present practices.
A number of individuals and organizations who claim to have had extensive experience in the Tindouf camps have also alleged that the suggestion that there is wide-spread slavery in the camps is false.
Some of them have claimed that the translations from Hassanyia to English were inaccurate. An example is a scene that takes place in Western Sahara with Fetim's family in the film's initial version in which someone is quoted as saying "Deido is Fetim's master." According to a critique of the film produced in 2009 by the Australia Western Sahara Association ("AWSA"), an independent translator from Al Jazeera engaged by ABC's 7.30 Report translated the interchange as "Violeta is tracking the history of Fatim. Frankly she thinks Deido owns her. Not true. Fatim told me that someone came to her and told her that she [Deido] has kidnapped her. She didn't kidnap her." According to AWSA, Oumar Sy, the translator the film makers quoted as having certified the film, has denied he certified it and has stated that he had informed the film makers "of the wrong translation" of certain passages. A letter ostensibly by him to the film makers is published on their website. The film makers made minor changes to some of the translations since the premiere screening, but some critics have complained that there are still a number of important errors.
Other critics have alleged that interviews were edited and that comments were taken out of context or not accurately described in order to convey a meaning that was not intended.
In a letter from Mr. Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to Mr. Abdelaziz, the President of the SADR (Polisario), dated June 22, 2009, Mr. Guiterres expressed "regret that in the film of Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw, the comments of an official of the HCR have been presented out of their context." He went on to state: "In the complete interview, of about 90 minutes long . . . [Mrs. Aboubacar] reiterated strongly that if certain residual practices of slavery could still prevail in the subregion of West Africa, she had no knowledge of such practices in the refugee camps of Tindouf." He further commented that "[T]he HCR has established for a long time a presence in the refugee camps of Tindouf. It does not have any information that practices similar to slavery have taken place in the camps. In fact, no occurrence of this practice has been brought to the attention of the HCR . . . ."
The film makers also allege that a report of Human Rights Watch in 2006 ("Human Rights in Western Sahara and in the Tindouf Refugee Camps")indicates evidence of slavery in the camps. In fact, the report only states that there were certain "residual slavery practices" that were still practiced by some of the residents of the camps (see pages 10 - 11). These concerned the refusal by some local personal status judges to perform the act of marriage for dark skinned women informally designated as "slaves" unless their "owners" gave their consent. There was no evidence of any other slavery practices cited in the report. Human Rights Watch noted that such historical practices had been documented in Mali, Mauritania, and Moroccan occupied Western Sahara as well. It also noted that the Polisario is on record as "firmly opposing slavery in all of its manifestations," and that it has taken steps to ensure that its officials do not carry out the practice. These comments were not mentioned in the film.
In the panel discussion that followed the airing of the film Stolen by PBS World as part of the AfroPoP series, Eric Goldstein, the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch in charge of the Middle East/North Africa desk noted that when he had brought to the attention of officials in the camp an incident in which a dark skinned woman had been denied the ability to marry, they immediately took steps to remedy the situation. He also noted that this practice was the only vestige of slavery that he had found in his investigation of the camps.
Critics have asserted that the film contains some scenes deliberately manipulated to give a false impression. As an example they cite a number of scenes intended to convey a negative impression of Deido, such as footage suggesting that Deido excluded Fetim's male relatives from the celebration honoring the arrival of Fetim's mother to the camps, implying that she only wanted to invite "white" guests. They failed to inform the viewers that the party that Deido planned was a woman-only event, and Fetim in later interviews claimed that all the neighboring women had been invited. Critics also cite scenes intended to give a negative impression of the Polisario and its claim that slavery is not recognized under the law. They allege, for instance, that the "manumission" document allegedly issued by Polisario officials was actually issued by officials in Mauritania.
Some commentators have suggested that the subjects themselves may have been misinformed concerning their legal rights and may only THINK that they are "slaves." At several points in the documentary subjects state that they have no "rights" under the law -- that their children can be taken away by the "Arabs," that they can be forced to marry against their will, and that they can be "owned." However, Article 25 of the SADR Constitution states that "All Sahrawi citizens shall enjoy the rights and freedoms recognized and granted by the Constitution without any discrimination as to ethnicity, race, colour, gender, language, religion and political or any other opinions" and commentators have noted that no mention is made in the film of any law which permits any of the practices mentioned by the subjects who are interviewed, or specific instances in which the courts enforced a slavery practice. The film makers themselves lend credence to this explanation. In an interview conducted by Bob Ellis, in ABC Unleashed, 16 June 2009 (http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2598993.htm) the reporter noted that Fetim and her husband had passports, were able to fly to Sydney for the film festival, and stayed un-policed at the home of an Australian government official. When asked whether this detracted from the claim in the film that Fetim was a "slave" Dan Fallshaw responded "There's no reason slaves can't fly overseas. Slavery is a state of mind . . . I never said Fetim is a slave. Other people in the film do." Violeta Ayala agreed, saying "Slavery can be mental."
The film making techniques used in making Stolen have also been criticized. According to AWSA the producer of the film has admitted that the scenes in the film where the film makers allege that they were fleeing the Polisario camps at night were actually reenactments filmed in sand dunes near Cronulla and on Bondi Golf Course in Sydney. AWSA also cites evidence that they left the camps peacefully without pursuit by Polisario officials. Rather than escaping through the desert at night, chased by Polisario guards, AWSA cites a press release issued by Tom Zubrycki, the producer of the film, stating that, after being detained for questioning by Polisario officials for a period of roughly 5 hours beginning at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, accompanied by UN officials, they were permitted to leave the camps peacefully with those officials. He further stated that "At all times the Polisario looked after us and afforded us every courtesy." Likewise, commentators have criticized the footage taken in the town of Tindouf in which it was suggested that the film makers were forced to wait for days to leave the area because of pressure from the government to turn over their tapes. In fact, there were only three flights from Tindouf to Algiers per week at that time and many visitors to the camps had to endure long waits to get a seat. The film makers produced no evidence that anyone was preventing them from leaving or trying to confiscate their film, and they managed to arrive in Paris within a few days.
These are only a few of the scenes of the film that have been discredited by commentators who consider them to be contrived, false or manipulated to give a false impression of events.
A documentary was produced by Carlos Gonzalez refuting many of the allegations in the film. It is called "Robbed of Truth" (www.robbedoftruth.com/Robbed_of_Truth/Home.html) In this film Mr. Gonzalex, who was a camera man who accompanied the film makers of Stolen to the Tindouf camps on their first visit, revisited the camps and re-interviewed many of the participants. The stories they told Mr. Gonzalez differ significantly from the accounts given to the producers of Stolen.
There is also a detailed critique of Stolen at http://awsa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/critique-v3-pdf.pdf. Since that critique was published several scenes of the documentary have been changed.
- Best Feature Documentary Prize at the 2010 Pan African Film and Arts Festival, Los Angeles, USA
- Best Editing and Special Mention at its NZ premiere at the Documentary Edge Festival 2010
- Best International Feature - Rincon International FF, Puerto Rico 2010
- Silver Olive at the XV International TV Festival Bar 2010 in Montenegro
- Best Film at the 2010 Festival Internacional de Cine de Cuenca, Ecuador
- Grand Prix of The Art of Document at the 2010 Multimedia Festival the Art of the Document, Warsaw, Poland
- Best Documentary at the 2010 Africa International Film Festival, Port Harcourt, Nigeria
- Golden Oosikar for Best Documentary at the 2010 Anchorage international Film Festival, Alaska, USA
- Honorable Mention at the 2010 Ojai Film Festival, Ojai, USA
- Bronze Audience Award at the 2010 Amnesty International Film Festival, Vancouver, Canada
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