Throwing a light on Western Sahara’s tragedy
'Sons of the Clouds', a new documentary about the ongoing conflict over a colonized corner of Africa, is both accessible and carefully handled.
By Olwen Mears
There is a moment in Alonso Longoria’s Los hijos de las nubes (or Sons of the Clouds) that sums up the situation of Western Sahara in all its tragedy and absurdity.
It is when, after a five-hour wait, first-time director Longoria and his collaborators (that include Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem) finally get an audience with a representative of the Algerian government. Once the man is informed that the interview concerns his country’s role in the conflict over Western Sahara, his evasiveness is almost comical: “How long will this take? No, no… sorry,” he says, “I’ve got a meeting on the other side of town and there’s a lot of traffic.”
Cut to a later shot of Bardem who simply chuckles, a reaction you imagine he was forced to have on several occasions during the making of this fascinating and sensitively-produced documentary.
This was not the only time a potential contributor had declined an interview. Those who refused outright to participate in the documentary include former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar and even the UN’s former secretary general, Kofi Annan, not to mention representatives of the Moroccan government.
I’ll admit that the prospect of watching Los hijos de las nubes filled me with a mixture of laziness and circumspection at first. In Spain the issue of Western Sahara buzzes on constantly, so obviously without any straightforward solution on the horizon. And I was wary of its status as a cause célèbre among Spanish celebrities, such as Bardem and Elena Anaya, who narrates the film.
Since 1884 the Sahrawi people have been little more than pawns in the game of richer, more powerful nations. First by those of the Berlin conference, and later France and the US, who supported cold-war ally Morocco’s claim to the territory over Russia-supporting Algeria.
Prior to the infamous 1885 carve-up of Africa between various nations of Europe, however, the Western Saharan people, “the children of the clouds” had always been nomadic by nature. They literally followed the course of the rainclouds in search of fertile pastures in which to breed livestock and grow crops.
It was false borders, imposed by overfed men sitting round a map, that forced them to adapt and accept one corner of Africa as their home. A piece that was handed over to Spain, along with Equatorial Guinea, Ceuta, Melilla and the Canary Islands; little more than dregs when you compare it with the British, French and Belgian occupations of Africa.
Come the decolonization of Africa, Spain, after promising to defend the Sahrawis from the occupying Moroccans “until the last drop of blood”, pulled out of Western Sahara as droves of Moroccans, fuelled by the call of their king, Hassan II, descended – peacefully – onto the territory.
It is difficult to know whether the currently desperate situation of the Sahrawi people makes them look back on their time as a Spanish nation with rose-tinted spectacles. Many of the older generation of the 150,000 Sahrawis now living in exile in the Algerian desert speak of it as a time of peaceful coexistence. Significantly, most of them, even the youngest, speak perfect Spanish. As Bardem points out, the Sahrawis live surprisingly free of anger and resentment, particularly towards Spain, who arguably abandoned them in 1975.
Despite the gross series of injustices that followed Morocco’s initially peaceful yet wholly illegitimate occupation of Western Sahara (which included attempts by Hassan II’s country to manipulate the results of a UN-organised referendum from which he later pulled out) the world remains relatively ignorant of the fate of the Sahrawis.
Pro-Western Saharan campaigners, some of whom remained in the Moroccan-occupied territory after 1975, are frequently subjected to persecution, torture and imprisonment. One interviewee, a member of Minurso, the UN peacekeeping mission to Western Sahara, describes how they are forced to sit by and watch Moroccan militia beat and torture Sahrawis simply because defending human rights does not form a part of their mandate.
After a confusing start, when I feared that Los hijos de las nubes would continue at break-neck speed in the assumption we all know what the conflict is about, this 80-minute documentary sets out the situation in Western Sahara clearly and coherently. And at no point does it seek to judge, though it is hard not to find Morocco at fault, particularly given their refusal to participate.
Despite a number of important figures in the conflict declining to take part in the documentary, there are contributions from several well-informed and high-profile figures who offer their own often fascinating insights into the development of the situation over the last few decades. None more so than Bardem (who also produced the film), who modestly offers his own take on a people who have clearly moved him, without ever stealing the limelight.
Cartoons are used to illustrate much of the historical details, which could have made light of the story. But they perhaps help to highlight the absurdity of a situation which shows us that often, fact is more bizarre and ultimately far more tragic than fiction.
‘Los hijos de las nubes’ is on general release in Spain.
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