analysisBy Stefan Simanowitz
Deep in a refugee camp in the Algerian desert, Sahrawi refugees from the Western Sahara are getting to host an array of actors and directors for the FiSahara film festival.
"Unlike most things planted in the desert, the FiSahara film festival has taken root and continues to grow and flourish," says Spanish film star Javier Bardem describing the unlikely success of the world's most remote film festival.
Now in its eleventh edition, the Sahara International Film Festival, whose latest programme was announced this week and which will run from 29 April to 4 May, takes place in a sun-baked stucco-and-tented camp deep in the Algerian desert.
It is attended by an array of international actors, directors and cinephiles, alongside thousands of Sahrawi refugees who have been exiled from their native Western Sahara for nearly four decades.
Western Sahara is a deeply disputed region and, occupied as it is by Morocco, is still a colonised territory.
The region was a Spanish colony before the European country finally withdrew in 1976 and divided it up between Morocco and Mauritania. In the ensuing years, internal Sahrawi resistance forced Mauritania out but Morocco maintained its occupation despite the 16-year guerrilla war that followed.
Large numbers of Sahrawi fled to Algeria, where they remain to this day, and despite a 1991 ceasefire and agreement to hold a referendum, the vote has never been held and Morocco is still in control of Western Sahara, in violation of various UN Security Council resolutions.
The 2012 documentary Sons of the Clouds, co-produced by and starring Bardem, explored this conflict. Bardem had attended the FiSahara film festival in 2008 and his visit inspired him to make the film, which went on to win multiple awards and be shown around the world, including at the US Congress, European Parliament and United Nations.
Raising awareness of the Western Sahara's plight is also part of film festival's raison d'etre. "FiSahara's contribution to the Sahrawi people is enormous," says Mohamed Ahmed, a civil servant in the Dakhla refugee camp. "It opens many windows for people around the world to find out about our lives and our fight for self-determination."
In welcoming this year's festival programme, Bardem was joined by the actress Julie Christie and the director Ken Loach, who described FiSahara as "a film festival like no other."
Loach, who has had three films screened at previous editions of the festival pointed out that it "not only offers a unique cultural and educational experience for all who participate but also offers the Sahrawi refugees a glimpse of what lies beyond their desiccated desert horizons."
Strengthened by its partnership with the Bertha Foundation and Amnesty International's 'Movies that Matter' festival, this year's programme boasts over 30 films, ranging from documentaries to blockbusters, and animations to short films.
The programme contains two Oscar-nominated documentaries - Dirty Wars and The Square (Al Midan) - and David Riker, screenwriter for Dirty Wars, will be among the many film-makers facilitating workshops. Other programme highlights include A World Not Ours about life in a refugee camp in Lebanon,
Argentinean 3-D comedy-animation Foosball, and Palestine's first ever 3-D animated movie, The Scarecrow.
The festival will also offer its trademark Sahrawi-themed section with films dedicated to the Western Sahara, many of which have been made by students from the film school established as part of FiSahara's wider 'Cinema for the Sahrawi People' project in 2011.
A special tribute to Nelson Mandela will include the screening of Clint Eastwood's Invictus and the participation of a delegation from the South African Department of Arts and Culture.
Many in South Africa's African National Congress (ANC) have drawn parallels between the South African liberation struggle and that of the Sahrawis, which Mandela once described as an attempt "to achieve the freedom and self-determination that are rightfully theirs."
Festival guests will fly to Tindouf, Algeria, and travel over 100 miles in convoy into the desert to Dakhla refugee camp, home to around 30,000 refugees.
They stay with refugee families, living in their homes and sharing their meals. With midday temperatures reaching the high 30s, most activities are scheduled for mornings and late afternoons with screenings taking place after sundown, the films projected onto a multiplex-sized screen attached to the side of an articulated lorry.
For the Sahrawi the festival offers an important break from the monotony of life as a refugee. "I have been waiting all year for this week to come," one young woman told Think Africa Press at a previous edition.
Another expressed her fascination at seeing films from all around the world. "I would like to travel and to understand what it is that makes people different and what it is that makes people just the same," she said.
However, the telling of Sahrawi stories is also essential to those living in the refugee community. "The development of our own film culture is important in the nation-building process," Jadiya Hamdi, the Sahrawi government-in-exile's Minister of Culture explains. "It is vital that Sahrawi stories are told by Sahrawi people".
Veteran human rights activist Peter Tatchell meanwhile comments, "The festival is a remarkable act of solidarity with an oppressed and dispossessed people who have been forgotten by the international community for nearly four decades.
Not only does it help to raise awareness of a grave injustice but it also empowers the Sahrawi to tell their own story through film by leaving a lasting legacy of film-making skills and equipment in the camps."
Indeed, as well as cultural activities such as concerts, craft fairs and camel races, this year's festival offers a broad youth-focused programme including audio-visual workshops and activities using hip-hop, graffiti and videogames.
The 2014 edition of the film festival will also coincide with the UN Security Council's now annual tradition of holding a vote to renew the mandate of MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping force in Western Sahara.
MINURSO was first sent to the region to help carry out a referendum on self-determination in 1991, which has remained stalled ever since.
MINURSO is the only contemporary UN peacekeeping force in the world without the power to monitor human rights and those involved in the festival are hoping that the UN will this year vote to extend the force's mandate to include human rights monitoring.
"FiSahara is increasingly attracting great films and great film-makers from around the world," says Bardem. "In so doing, the festival sends a signal to our political leaders that this crisis that can no longer be ignored. It sends a signal to the UN that human rights in occupied Western Sahara must finally be monitored. And it sends a signal to the Sahrawi refugees that despite their isolation, they have not been forgotten."
To find out more or book your place visit festivalsahara.com.
Stefan Simanowitz is a freelance journalist, photographer, and the international coordinator for the FiSahara film festival.
As well as for Think Africa Press, he has written for, among others, the Guardian (UK), the Independent (UK), the Huffington Post, the Africa Report, Al Jazeera, and the Mail and Guardian (South Africa). Follow him on twitter @StefSimanowitz.