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First Person: The ‘Stolen’ Filmmakers Explain How a Doc About Refugees Became a Controversial Film About Reported Slavery

First Person: The 'Stolen' Filmmakers Explain How a Doc About Refugees Became a Controversial Film About Reported Slavery

The 2009 documentary “Stolen” was originally slated to air on public broadcasting’s WORLD Channel on February 5th as part of the Gabourey Sidibe-hosted fifth season of the “AfroPop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange” film series. But due to controversy surrounding the doc, which started as a portrait of the reunion between a Saharawi refugee and her mother and turned into an exposé about reported modern-day slavery in the Western Sahara, the broadcast of “Stolen” was delayed so that WORLD could produce a wrap-around special to air with the film explaining the complicated issues surrounding it.

“Stolen” will be broadcast tonight, February 26th at 7pm ET, on the WORLD Channel, and will be preceeded by a report on the region from journalist Phillip Martin and followed by a panel discussion with filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw and WGBH News’ Callie Crossley. Below, Ayala and Fallshaw explain for Indiewire how their film ended up becoming such a contested work and what has happened since it first had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009.

In 2006, we went to the Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria to make a film about the human side of the long-running conflict between Morocco and the Polisario over the Western Sahara. Little did we know what we’d uncover.

The United Nations organises family reunions, and we decided to focus the film on one of these reunions. We met Fetim, a beautiful black Saharawi woman on the last night of our first visit to the camps. She was the first person we spoke to who didn’t discuss politics and Leil, her 16-year-old daughter, spoke fluent Spanish.

The camp population consists of two groups, the Beydan (white Arabs) and the descendents of sub-Sarahan Africans. One afternoon Kamal Fadel, the Polisario representative to Australia, a Beydan, remarked that Leil’s two-year-old sister looked like a “monkey,” which Leil heard. Angered, she spoke out for the first time and told us that things aren’t as they seem in the camps and black people don’t have the same rights as the so-called Beydan, who rule the camps. She told us the black people are still slaves, they don’t have the right to decide whom they marry, can have their children taken away, don’t carry their own last name and have no power over their destiny.

That was the moment for the film when everything changed. Other people started to tell us their personal experiences of slavery in the hope we could take their stories to the world. It felt like a mini revolution amongst the black people, but this new hope was short-lived: the Polisario, who run the camps, discovered that we’d learned about slavery and we had to hide our footage to protect the black people and to make the film. The Polisario authorities detained us.

It was from this moment the Polisario launched their campaign to discredit the film and us. Without knowing what we’d captured on camera, they told the UN we were “paying people to act out scenes of slavery.” When the UN officers came to investigate our detention, the Polisario said they wanted our tapes or they wouldn’t let us leave. The UN colonel decided it was safer if we left with them, and made diplomatic arrangements for us to leave.

While we were detained in Algeria, Fetim’s husband Baba, who was living in Spain illegally, sent a letter to the film’s producer in Australia withdrawing permission for his family to appear in the film. At the same time, Leil told us on the phone that the police were at their house interrogating them. We didn’t know if we could get out of North Africa and the pressure put on the black people to stop their fight began.

We later interviewed the UNHCR in Geneva about slavery in the Tindouf refugee camps, and they told us they’re aware of slavery. When the film premiered in 2009, the Polisario flew Fetim to Australia to say slavery doesn’t exist. Matala, Salem and Embirik, who traveled to Mauritania to speak out about slavery in “Stolen,” were jailed and forced to recant their statements, saying we paid them to talk about slavery.

We were accused of working for the Moroccan government, but “Stolen” shows that slavery affects the black people in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara as well. After the Moroccan government learned this, 20 tapes were stolen and exchanged for blank tapes from our hotel room in Rabat. The Moroccan police ordered us to leave Western Sahara. Rather than the slave masters facing prosecution, the victims were interrogated by police.

The Polisario and Moroccan government have tried to stop us making “Stolen” for the simple reason the film deals with slavery, a human rights abuse that they would prefer to keep hidden.

We’ve considered at length our right to portray Fetim and others in “Stolen” after they’ve said they don’t want to be part of the film. When asked this question in an interview with PBS, we made the point that we originally went to the camps to make a film about a family reunion and it was the people themselves who wanted to tell us that slavery was still affecting their lives. We had two choices, to listen to them and take their stories into account or ignore them… Before the camp authorities found out what the black people had told us, Fetim, Matala and everyone else spoke willingly about slavery, but once the camp authorities found out what we were being told, many, but not all of the camp residents who appear in “Stolen,” recanted their stories.

It was evident that improper pressure had been put on the black Saharawis who appear on the film. We’re 100% certain they want their fight recognized and slavery to end. There’s been significant pressure placed on PBS to not show “Stolen” from US-based lobbyists (US law firm Foley Hoag have been paid the best part of $1,000,000 annually by the Algerian government since 2007 to lobby in the US on issues related to Western Sahara) for the Algerian government, who back the Polisario. It was this pressure on PBS that prompted WGBH to carry out their own investigation and present the “Stolen” two-hour special.

It has been six years since we were detained in Algeria, and a long and tough journey, not only to make the film but to get it out. There’s been pressure to stop the film’s funding, pressure to get the people to recant, threats of legal action and even a film made against “Stolen.” The criticism ranges from “slavery doesn’t exist” to questioning our journalistic methods in making the film, although everything presented in the film was our decision to include and depicts our experience.

We were faced with a situation that’s unbearable, and even worse, that slavery exists in a refugee camp, supported by the international community and the UN. “Stolen” has been branded controversial. Rather than discuss what can be done to end slavery, we end up discussing details in the film that are irrelevant in comparison to slavery. We expect the media to ask the Polisario, the UN and the Moroccan government what they’re going to do to end slavery. We make films to question ourselves and the societies we live in, bringing subjects to light so they can be addressed, otherwise nothing would ever change.

Slavery needs to be criminalized across North Africa. “Stolen” tells a story and brings a message from the black people of the Sahara to the international community and everyone who watches the film, so that today no one can say they didn’t know.

Violeta Ayala is an artist/writer/filmmaker born in Bolivia, best known for the highly controversial documentary “Stolen” that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2009, screened in 80 festivals worldwide, winning 15 awards. Violeta is currently making two feature documentaries; “Cocaine Prison” (supported by the Tribeca Film Institute, IDFA’s Fund, Fonds Sud Cinema, the Strasbourg Film Fund, Screen NSW, Screen Australia, the Norwegian Film Institute) and “The Bolivian Case” (Supported by Puma, NRK and NFI). Violeta is an alumnus of the Film Independent Documentary Lab, the Berlinale Talent Campus and a Tribeca Film Institute Fellow. She is also developing two feature films, “Cocaine Queens,” inspired by her documentary work over the past three years, and “El Comunista,” about her grandfather, leader of the Bolivian Communist party, exiled Serbian Jew and friend to Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh.

Dan Fallshaw is an award-winning producer, cinematographer and editor. In 2009, Dan co-directed, produced, shot and edited the multi award winning “Stolen.” Dan is currently producing “The Bolivian Case” and “Cocaine Prison,” which was pitched at IDFA’s Forum, Sheffield’s MeetMarket and the Berlinale. Dan has a degree in Visual Communications from University of Technology in Sydney and St Martins College in London. He is a Tribeca Film Institute Fellow and an alumnus of the Film Independent Documentary Lab. Dan is Managing Director of United Notions Film.

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