Film festivals in the desert grow peace

The World had a wonderfully uplifting story about the people who have been refugees in Western Sahara for many years now. 

For the past 17 years, Sahrawis living in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria have been holding the FiSahara International Film Festival. Spanish filmmakers launched it in 2003 as a way to spread awareness of the Sahrawi struggle for self-determination and to help them document a culture whose existence is threatened.

FiSahara International Film Festival

Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975, when Morocco and Mauritania invaded, and nearly half the native Sahrawi population fled across the border into Algeria. While life in the refugee camps is difficult for them, they can display their flag, speak their language, and practice their culture and traditions, unlike Sahrawi still living in Morocco. In November 2020, a long-standing ceasefire broke down and open hostilities resumed between Morocco and fighters from the Sahrawi government’s armed Polisario Front. This was the first FiSahara since that happened.

Some festival attendees are flown in on a charter plane from Madrid, Spain, and stay in the homes of local refugee families for four days, sharing meals and experiencing daily life in the camps. The heat is blistering in the afternoons, there are occasional sandstorms, and the refugees rely on the United Nations for water and food rations. Running a film festival is challenging, because of strong winds, power outages and equipment that is stressed by the elements.

Each evening, the festival screens films about the conflict and other human rights-related topics on temporary screens. Tents showcase Sahrawi nomadic culture, music and dance. “If we just give people food to fill their stomachs, but not food for their minds, they won’t have an identity as a Sahrawi people, and our culture would cease to exist,” explained festival director Tiba Chagaf.

It’s powerful because local people can now see their own lives represented on the screen, says FiSahara executive director Maria Carrion. “The Saharawi people have been very clear from the beginning that no amount of rice, lentils or medicines are getting them out of here,” she said. “The only thing that will do that is if their voices are heard. And this festival is a way of echoing that call for freedom and for justice.”

FiSahara organizers have created a solar-powered, mobile cinema that shows films in the camps during the year, and opened a film school to teach local Sahrawis how to make movies of their own.

Azza Mohamed, 19, whose short film in this year’s festival addressed the problem of drug use in the camps, thinks it’s a good way to help. “You can be a doctor and you can save a few lives,” she told Scott Gurion of the Far From Home podcast, “but after you die, you’ll no longer be able to help people. If you’re a filmmaker, though, you can have a larger footprint, because your work will live on in history.”

Braiden Ras, Festival au Desert in Exile – Vimeo

When I listened to the story, I was reminded of another festival, this one which used to take place in Timbuktu, in northern Mali. Here is footage on Vimeo  from the 2010 Festival au Desert, made by Cultures of Resistance. As you can see, it is not just a celebration of culture and music – it is a celebration of peace. Bono played the festival in 2012.

When I was teaching human security and peacebuilding field work at university, I used to show the learners a series of videos that showed the horrors of the divisive conflict in northern Mali, and asked them to think how they could use their skills and knowledge to propose short-term solutions, imagining they were people on a short-term field mission. 

Then I showed them footage from Festival au Desert so they could see that human security fieldwork internationally is not just about feeding and housing refugees, and peacebuilding is not just sitting down to high level talks. It is possible to do several things at once – build a culture of peace, build community, celebrate culture, and build and support a local economy where that can seem invisible. And it celebrated joy, which is not so often seen in international humanitarian work.


The World’s Most Remote Film Festival. Foreign Policy, Nov. 25, 2022