When Docos Lie
Documanetarists and ethics is a bit like the opening sequence of ‘Miller’s Crossing’ where a gangster explains ethics, so I’ve been avoiding writing about this story because I’d rather not get into discussions about documentaries and ethics. Oh well, here we go.
IT BEGAN as a human interest documentary about the refugee camps in the Algerian desert. But Stolen has been plunged into controversy with its claims of slavery in northern Africa being hotly challenged.
The film, which screens tonight as part of the Sydney Film Festival’s documentary competition, includes interviews with refugees who claim a camp’s white Arabs have enslaved its black inhabitants and have been taking away their children.
But on the eve of its world premiere, Stolen’s two Sydney directors, Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw, have been accused of dishonesty and foul play. After they returned home from filming, they received a videoed statement from their main subject, alleged slave Fetim Sellami, asking to withdraw from the project.
In her statement, which is included in Stolen, she claims the allegations of slavery are baseless and the filmmakers are not to be trusted.
Ayala and Fallshaw believe she was coerced into the statement by the Polisario Liberation Front, the political organisation that controls the camps. “Fetim knew what she was talking about throughout making the film,” said Fallshaw yesterday. “She has been forced to do this.”
The Sydney representative of Polisario, Kamal Fadel, tells a different story. He originally helped the filmmakers travel to the camps and introduced them to Sellami and her family.
“She hosted them for a long period in her house and is disappointed with their behaviour,” he said.
“She says they left without saying thank you or goodbye and she’s quite concerned about the allegations of slavery.”
Ayala and Fallshaw say they left in a hurry because the Polisario were watching them and trying to steal the footage. They left Sellami’s home to bury the tapes in the desert, before leaving the country. The film follows their struggles to retrieve the tapes and finish the film.
“We didn’t know where or how we would finish the film,” says Fallshaw. “It was a tightrope the whole time.”
The story then got a little more interesting a couple of days ago with this entry.
FAITIM SALAM says she is not a slave. Last night she walked into the Sydney Film Festival’s sold-out film about her, Stolen, to defend her freedom.
Days ago she set out from a refugee camp in Western Sahara, where she has lived for 35 years, to fly to Sydney and confront the two Australian filmmakers she says have trivialised the diaspora of her people and traduced her reputation.
Wearing traditional clothes used to combat 55-degree temperatures in her flat, dry homeland, she cut an elegant line through the swathe of cineastes who had turned up, perhaps lured by pre-screening publicity that slavery continues 202 years after its official abolition.
Stolen includes interviews with refugees who say Arabs enslave refugee camp residents and take away their children.
“I am not a slave,” Ms Salam told the Herald through an interpreter.
“I am free to move at will. Am I not in Australia? Is my husband not here? We are not slaves.”
She said the Bondi writer-directors Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw had tricked her into taking part with false claims about what they wished to portray and had paid camp refugees to lie about slaves.
“The people who made the film came to us and said they wanted to make a documentary about the impact on families. Instead, they sensationalised it for easy publicity,” she said.
“I fed them, took them in, then they fled without even saying goodbye.”
Ms Salam and her husband, Baba Hocine, flew into Sydney yesterday to face down the filmmakers.
Nobody’s actually come out and said it, but at this point, wouldn’t you suspect (if not conclude) that these doco makers had been somewhat a bit dodgy?
The dodginess extends further on the second page wherein we find:
Screen Australia gave $251,000 towards the film. It was produced by Tom Zubrycki, a documentary filmmaker with a fine history of works about the dispossessed. His wife, Julia Overton, is a new investments development manager at Screen Australia.
Zubrycki said: “The Polisario have been very good at organising their supporters here … They would like this to go away but all the filmmakers want to do is alert the world to what is going on.”
What exactly is going on? The Sydney Film Festival refused to re-classify the film even though the star said it was based on a lie. The ABC reported subsequent events here. I’m sort of not surprised but find it rather appalling. It’s not a decision that’s going to reflect well of them into the future.
FETIM SELLAMI (translated): At the beginning she come with a nice story so we were happy but at the end when I follow up the film, I find out there was a different things and there was something behind it.
DI BAIN: But the film makers say they found a more important story to tell – the existence of black slaves in UN monitored refugee camps.
VIOLETA AYALA: This is not a political film and this is a film that highlights slavery in both sides of the political conflict, in the Polisario refugee camps, in the Moroccan control Western Sahara.
DI BAIN: Fatim Sellami is one of 165,000 Sawaharis who are in exile. They’ve set up camps under the rule of the Polisario Liberation Front.
When she heard about the angle of the film Fatim Sellami asked to be taken out of the final cut.
Film maker Dan Fallshaw said no. He believes she’s been coerced by the PLF into speaking out.
DAN FALLSHAW: She told us her story and that’s what we have put up on the screen. I feel awful that they are being marched out here to say it’s not true.
This is ridiculous. At some point when the documentary subject comes out and says what you’ve created is a lie, it should stand. After all, and logically speaking, to claim she has no credibility when she speaks for herself because she’s being coerced, when the accusation is that you’ve coerced the content of your so-called documentary; surely we can’t trust the film-makers word for it over the subject. She should know she’s not a slave, and that there aren’t 20,000 other slaves as a logical extension of that, seems obvious.
MATT PEACOCK: They’re kept as concubines, raped by the members, they’re not allowed to marry without their master’s consent and you estimate there’s something like 20,000 in the Polisario camps?
VIOLETA AYALA: Yes, that’s what they say.
CARLOS GONZALEZ, CINEMATOGRAPHER: During the three weeks I spent there with them I saw absolutely no indication of slavery.
MATT PEACOCK: Serious doubt has now been cast on the filmmakers’ claims by Carlos Gonzalez, who’s worked extensively in the area, and was the filmmaker’s cameraman on the second of their three visits*. He was so shocked by their revelations that he retraced the filmmakers’ steps and says he found a completely different story.
CARLOS GONZALEZ: During a trip to the camps I talked to those they claimed were slaves and found out they felt used and misled by Violeta and Dan. They feel they’re being completely misrepresented in the film.
If your own cinematographer thinks you’re misrepresenting your subjects, I think it’s time to hang up your claims for ‘documenting’ the truth. This is such a tawdry affair.
It’s really disappointing to see that it’s the same old business at Screen Australia as it was with the AFC. It’s not surprising that they end up funding a stupid doco that misrepresents people. Pathetic, yes, but surprising, no.
UPDATE ON THIS POST:
There’s now a reference to this post on film.ink, so I’m going to mention that link as a reciprocal mention. I’d also like to quote some salient events since this post, noted on the film ink link:
Most of the translation Hassania (local language) into English is completely wrong.
Many of the scenes in the film were constructed (acted, cut and mixed to give certain false impressions…etc) so this is not a documentary.
The filmmakers have included in the film footage shot by an American cameraman called Carlos Gonzales without his permission. This is a breach of copyrights. The filmmakers have now been forced to delete that part of the film.
Screen Australia has admitted that it has no release (consent) signed or otherwise from the Saharawis involved in the documentary.
There is also a serious issue regarding the involvement of the Moroccan regime in the documentary and its use of the film as propaganda tool to harm the Saharawi struggle for freedom and self-determination.
I’m appalled that they don’t have releases for the seqeunces. I’m seriously shocked they’ve let this film out into the public without those releases in place. Where were the lawyers?