If actor Javier Bardem helped to put Fisahara and Western Sahara on the world map after his 2008 visit to the festival and the launch of his 2012 documentary Sons of the Clouds, it would take a sustained team effort to bring the world to FiSahara. In 2013, the festival headed in a new direction, creating a human rights film section with the support of Movies that Matter, Amnesty International’s film festival in The Hague, launching a series of human rights video activism workshops in partnership with the New York City-based human rights NGO WITNESS founded by singer Peter Gabriel, and joining the Human Rights Film Network (HRFN) whose more than 40 member festivals span the world.
At that point, Executive Director María Carrión‘s approach was “not to reject any invitation, no matter whether the event was in a village close by or on the other side of the world; whether it was a small community gathering or a huge international affair”. For FiSahara, “becoming well known among people and communities who work in film and social justice could help to bring critical support for the Sahrawi cause“.
Carrión, who co-founded the NGO Nomads HRC in 2018 with her FiSahara colleagues Mayka Guerao and Sara Pujalte that now coordinates the festival’s international activities, believes that sustained networking is what can make the difference between working under the radar and being “noticed, listened to and supported”, an uphill battle for those who work on underreported crises.
It was this networking that also helped to expand FiSahara’s financial and organizational support. Prior to 2012 the festival had been funded almost completely by Spanish entities, including the Spanish International Cooperation Agency (AECID). When that support dried up due to the global economic crisis, international entities stepped in: Dimes Foundation, Bertha Foundation, Prince Claus Fund, Cultures of Resistance, Movies that Matter’s International Program and Tides Foundation via the girls’ empowerment project Girl Rising, whose funding objectives all closely match FiSahara’s mission, have collectively funded most of the festival’s activities since then.
Having funders and partners on board whose vision and activities include connecting activists, communities and projects to one another has also helped FiSahara expand its horizons: Prince Claus Fund’s annual awards ceremony and cultural speed date in Amsterdam, which brings hundreds of artists and social justice activists together, Movies that Matter’s Cinema without Borders’ workshops held in Amman, Buenos Aires and Amsterdam, Bertha Foundation’s events around film and social impact, WITNESS’ Video4Change Africa meeting in Burundi and the Network for Arab Alternative Screens in Beirut’s workshop during Talents Beirut have offered countless opportunities for FiSahara to network, find new partners and strengthen its work and reach.
In 2014 FiSahara co-edited and authored several chapters of the HRFN’s Setting up a Human Rights Film Festival Vol. 2, a practical handbook also edited and written by One World, Movies that Matter and network members aimed in particular at festival teams working under difficult or challenging conditions. A photograph of FiSahara appears on the cover; the handbook is now available in Arabic, French and Spanish as well as English. Currently, FiSahara is a board member of the network.
Through this networking, FiSahara has screened dozens of films at HRFN festivals, and team members, as well as filmmakers and activists, have travelled extensively representing FiSahara and the cause — from the Naples Human Rights Film Festival, to Karama Human Rights Film Festival (Amman, Jordan), One World (Prague), Buenos Aires’ Environmental Rights Film Festival (FINCA), Oslo’s Human International Documentary Film Festival, Inconvenient Films in Vilnius (Lithuania) — where audience members realized for the first time that their country was the world’s second importer of plundered phosphates from Western Sahara and subsequent media coverage led the Lithuanian phosphates importer to withdraw from the territory — and of course, the San Sebastian Human Rights Film Festival, which has a ten-year partnership with FiSahara and screens films on Western Sahara at every edition. Fisahara has also been present at every edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) since 2013.
FiSahara aims to help distribute films made by Sahrawi filmmakers to festivals and other events around the world. Leyuad, a film honouring Western Sahara’s poets co-directed by Brahim Chagaf and Portrait by Omar Ahmed screened at the Lausanne African Film Festival, and both filmmakers traveled to Switzerland from the camps to participate in a roundtable on film schools in Africa. 3 Stolen Cameras, a film made collectively by at-risk Sahrawi media activists from Equipe Media and Räfilm from Sweden, screened at Gaza’s Red Carpet Human Rights Film Festival(upper photo) and at Festival MAS de Nicaragua.
Sahrawi-made films have also screened in numerous other festivals, including the Festival Ojo al Sancocho in Ciudad Bolívar (Bogotá, Colombia)
The award-winning Hamada, a feature documentary by Spanish filmmaker Eloy Domínguez Serén made in collaboration with the Abidin kaid Saleh Audiovisual School (and starring three former students), was one of IDFA’s most viewed films in 2017 and screened in dozens of festivals, winning awards at France’s prestigious Cinema du Réel festival, at Beyond Borders Film Festival in Greece and many others.
In 2016 FiSahara, in partnership with WITNESS, launched Watching Western Sahara (WWS), a project born out of the human rights video activism workshops that aims to collect, contextualize and distribute videos filmed by self-taught Sahrawi media activists showing human rights violations inside the Morocco-occupied Western Sahara. It was presented at a special event on human rights and press freedom at NYC’s the Roosevelt House.
WWS will soon launch a brand new website in partnership with NomadsHRC, Equipe Media and the Human Rights Center at Berkeley and its HR Investigations Lab. This collaboration made possible a special report by The Washington Post that exposed human rights abuses in Western Sahara by Moroccan police.
FiSahara and Nomads HRC also collaborated in the making of many films, including Iara Lee’s Life is Waiting and Four Days in Occupied Western Sahara: A Rare Look Inside Africa’s Last Colony by Democracy Now! which has been seen hundreds of times, and in April of 2019 was screened by the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley with Amy Goodman and her team.
“If at the end of the day a new person in a new community learns about the peaceful struggle of the Sahrawi people and their quest for freedom, and decides to get involved our mission has been accomplished”, concludes Carrión.