At the Human Rights Film Festival, colonialism still rules. By BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

LAST DECEMBER, I ended up in, of all the places in the world, Western Sahara. Its landscape is a remarkable visage, the ocean creeping up to a desert so vast that a whisper and a shout would be the same thing. But even here, the torrid, cruel landscape provoked such strong feelings of belonging for its inhabitants, that I couldn’t help but share the joy that the wonderful Sahrawis I was travelling with felt about their earth. And they told me about the tragedy unfolding in the impassive wilderness, of a people dispossessed since colonial times, and forgotten by the Western world. It is within this backdrop that Fecci and Bloeman’s documentary, Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony is made.

Western Sahara was a Spanish colony, but the Spanish held onto the land for as long as they were able to pretend colonialism wasn’t a vampiric practice. Instead of giving the Sahrawi the independence the Spanish had promised, the land ended up becoming a battleground between neighbouring Mauritania and Morocco as to who could get the most territory. The Sahrawi were left in the middle. The Moroccans “won”, and took over the land. Followed was another brutal war when the Sahrawi themselves fought the Moroccans, leading to a 1991 ceasefire. Part of the ceasefire conditions by the UN was for a plebiscite determining Sahrawi independence, but the Moroccans have delayed this for coming up to decades now – for nationalistic and economic purposes. And now, with the Moroccans being seen as a key bulwark in the “War on Terror” by the United States, and the toothless UN doing nothing but spend a lot of money partying in the territory, it appears the Sahrawi will continue to be left as the lone and level sands stretch over them.

The Human Rights Festival films aren’t noteworthy for aesthetic reasons, rather it is the subject matter that provide the compelling viewing. It’s a sad, baffling world that we live in, and the Festival does its darnedest to make sure we don’t slide into apathy. This film is constructed of interviews and archival footage, Fecci and Bloeman spent their time looking at refugees in Southern Algeria. It appears that they weren’t able to actually film in Western Sahara, which is unsurprising seeing as I was stopped twelve times by the army when I travelling there for simply being a tourist.

The major focus of the documentary is on a family headed by Mulay and Amma Didi, and the anguish they feel at being separated thirty years from their daughter, while languishing in a refugee camp. The documentary points out the vibrant democracy present in the self-governance of the Sahrawi, and shows some of the human and animal carnage (I must forewarn about a camel scene). The point of view is the Sahrawis alone, (there isn’t a Moroccan right of reply) but given the complete ignoring of the situation by the world’s media, this point of view needed to be shown. The documentary highlights the legacy of colonialism, and the cruelties of being caught in the middle of bigger bullies fighting it out. And as the documentary points out, if people continue to ignore the plight of the Sahrawi people, we’d be sanctioning the military conquest of a people by a government that has no claim to it historically, culturally or morally.