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Pleiades Mailbag 13/Jul/2012

Gimme Some Truth, Part 101

Back in 2009, a film was shown at the Sydney Film Festival to what amounts to a storm of criticism for its dodgy contention that there were slaves where there were not. I wrote about it at the time  here, here, and here.The film’s director’s aunt came over to these pages to contend that what her nephew had done was totally acceptable and honorable – which, patently was not true, no in the least bit – and the brouhaha spilled over even on to this little blog.

In some ways, the whole episode contributed to my feeling that Screen Australia were ethically compromised from within to allow such a film to be made and furthered the impression by washing their hands of the business. The inside information I got at the time was that once the film was made, what was there to be said or done? They were simply going to let that film ride out into the sunset, but whatever acclaim that came to it, they would take credit (as is the way with Australian Film Institutions in general – but that’s another discussion altogether).

It was all very messy. My own take away message was that if one were to value one’s own integrity as a film maker, one could do much better than associate with the likes of Violeta Ayala, Dan Fallshaw and Tom Zubrycki; that one could do better than to open conversations with Screen Australia on anything that remotely involved public ethics; and that the so-called undecidability of authorial intent over a text had reached an apotheosis of stupidity where people were stating bare-faced lies and then denying they stated their lies.

“There’s no reason slaves can’t fly overseas”, said Dan Fallshaw, the co-auteur. “Slavery is a state of mind.”

“Slavery can be mental”, Violeta Ayala said. “I never said Fetim is a slave”, Dan said. “Other people in the film do.”

A slave with a husband travelling Qantas and lodged with an eminent Labor politician? “I never said she was a slave”, Dan said.”The film shows us the facts. The audience can make up its mind.”

But no-one is shown shackled in the film. No-one is shown being spoken to harshly. No-one is shown being humiliated in any way. The only person (and he is treated as a person) who is humiliated in the film is the camel, whom the directors paid the villagers to humiliate and murder in front of the camera.

That was three years go now, and discussing the issues *surrounding* the film was an experience I found on the whole disgusting, nauseating and heartbreaking to say the least. Yes, it broke me. I decided I wanted out from the Film Industry if this was the tenor of the debate. I mean, why would anybody want to stay after that?

Today, Pleiades sent me this link where Bob Ellis discusses the new film made by the cinematographer of ‘Stolen’ denounces the film and its filmmakers.

And so it was that in this mood Carlos’s film was shown to a mixed and mutinous audience at AFTRS, and a chairperson, xxx, announced at 8.10 that we had to be out of there by 9.05 and she would interview Carlos for forty minutes and then take questions — OR STATEMENTS — from the audience and from the perspiring, embattled Dan and Violetta endlessly waiting up on skype, and then favoured us with her own heroic autobiography for a couple of minutes while we looked at our watches apprehensively.

Her redundant conversation with Carlos then took place — what is your film about, she asked him, and we had just seen it — for, amazingly, only twenty minutes, and a logjam of multidirectional fury in the audience vented garrulously all over the occasion BEFORE Dan and Violetta, screaming in their turn on skype, were allowed to talk over the chairperson, who kept yelling back at their giant images up on the screen, shut up, she said, shut up, and it got to be twenty past nine and a woman kept asking will you all please leave now and I’ve rarely had a lousier time in my life. I and Philippe and Meredith Burgmann co-starred in the film, and it would have been nice to discover how it might have gone down with an unbiased audience but this was not, alas, to be.

I will write more about this after viewing the response to it which Matt Peacock, who was I think as angry as me, is going to put on 7.30 tonight.

I hate to be writing this entry only a couple of weeks after going back to AFTRS for a wonderful evening and rekindling my passion for film making, but I guess at some point we all have to confront this ridiculous evil somehow.

Bob Ellis says he was in the minority but the opinions I had found at the time were firmly on his side – the side that demanded nothing buy the truth – and I would contend to this day that those who support the Ayala and Fallshaw positions are philosophically bankrupt munchkins undeserving of whatever public forum they possess to expound their idiotic views. If AFTRS is essentially going to be a little haven of ideologically motivated moral relativists then I guess that’s one tragedy.

But it also goes to core of what can be such a dogy area of epistemology in this part of history: the context-compromised documentary presenting itself as a depiction of reality or truth.The amazing thing is how these people insist on the veracity of their content while denying they made any false claims, claiming it is our fault for interpreting the presented information as saying they are claiming there is slavery. If that’s not the most pernicious kind of sophistry, I don’t know, maybe they should make films in praise of good Nazis who tried to protect us from evil Jewish Bankers – because that’s the level of context-denial that’s running through the defense of the film.

And what gets me is that some people are worried about ‘Ted‘ or ‘Human Centipede II‘. Jeebus. If you really want to get up in arms with your pitchforks, line up outside AFTRS and where Dan and Violeta live. That’s where the rot is setting in our public discourse.

As I’ve always contended on this topic, I’d like some truth from those people defending the film makers. Oh, and I will necessarily delete all comments of those defending ‘Stolen’ on this entry so you’ve all been warned.

UPDATE:

Here’s a link to a Matt Peacock interview with Carlos Gonzales who made the film denouncing ‘Stolen’ and its makers.

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‘Stolen’ Imbroglio Continues

The Q&A On Audio

Here’s the link as provided by artrlight. Thank you.

I’m shocked at the degree of rhetoric coming from both sides. This is not a Q&A that was ever going to yield any answers.

Just as I had anticipated, Tom’s interpreter was brought in to rubberstamp the films claims, in absentia of context. They showed him/her the fiLm over a few nights with some extra shots before and after. After which the said interpreter gave his/her seal of approval and then said, they anted to remain anonymous. That’s hardly an objective assessment that would stand. Talk about garbage-in-garbage-out.

I’m appalled at how inarticulate Ms Ayala is in this interview. I understand English is not her first language, but she comes over as a petulant child insisting on having things her way. Maybe it works for her to force things through with the force of her pushy persona, but her answers weren’t really enlightening of what they were thinking. It struck me that whatever it was they were thinking, it didn’t have much to do with responsible reportage.

The questioners also line up their rhetorical ducks in line and Dan refuses to answer the questions. Violeta kind of raves with inarticulate “you knows” punctuating what is essentially a stream of self-justification. The AWSA reps are asking pretty forensic questions about tapes and who asked what questions when which don’t really go to the heart of the matter.

I’m aghast at the sense of what Dan thinks is polite, where he’s willing to break trust to get the shot, but that’s all okay in film making; and what Violeta thinks is human rights being more important than politics. It’s as if they’ve decided they just won’t see the problem as a probelm, and therefore it’s not a problem. They’re like non-contenders in the basic ethics stakes.

Which naturally begs the question, how come these other people are so upset? Dan replies he dosn’t want to comment to a pointed question. I’m sure Dan wouldn’t because there’s not an answer he could give that would make him look good. It’s a really ghastly Q&A. Nobody sounds good or decent. None of it is in the least bit edifying. It just makes us confront the obtuseness of Tom, Dan and Violeta and Kemal and Fetim and the privileged-to-be-black dude and the Australian dude.

A Lot Of Fuss For A 1/4Million Bucks

The other thread where we discussed the issue of releases and translations got a little long so I started to add an entry here for the continued joy of gratuitous argument.

To put things into a little perspective, ‘Stolen’ got less than $250k from Screen Australia which, on one hand is a lot of money but on movie-making stakes, is peanuts. All this arguing over a measly $250k film. I don’t think James Cameron would get out of bed in the mornings for a $250k film. Nonetheless we have this incredibly stupid controversy which cannot be resolved because nobody seem to have enough clout or financial wherewithal to sort it all out.

ScreenHub Goes To Bat For Tom

Anyway, here’s David Tiley from ScreenHub’s account of the Melbourne Film Festival screening, abridged:

The screening itself passed off quietly, to a fascinated audience. The q&a was moderated by Andrew Dodd, and recorded for Radio National, who asked questioners to identify themselves, and their affiliations with Polisario or the filmmakers.

That didn’t work for long. A variety of people attempted to cast doubt on the plausibility of the story, with a series of mannered micro-speeches; the film’s attackers in Melbourne were clearly disciplined, well-rehearsed and courteous. At least one person supporting the film seemed to share the same passion for planning.

Producer Zubrycki, never relaxed in public, was clearly tense. Fallshaw and Ayala were defensive and hectoring, reflecting their behavior in the second half of the film.

Afterwards, the cinema was abuzz with excited discussion. As I said to one viewer, “I haven’t seen something like this for a long time. It feels like the Seventies.”

“No”, she replied. “The Seventies were much worse.”

The extraordinary thing about this film remains its honesty, which has clearly evolved to anticipate and respond to criticism – an evolution which is only possible with easy digital recuts.

Audience members I talked to generally disliked Fallshaw and Ayala, who admit they dealt with the Moroccans, who seem self important and grandiose, who bully interviewees late in the film.

But it remains convincing – there is slavery in the camps, it takes a certain cultural form, it is named as such, and the film provides a fascinating picture of the experience of enslavement in action.

It is also obsessed with its own story, which shifts from slavery to Polisario’s attempts to deal with a public relations problem. It doesn’t enter the politics of the struggle – we don’t even get a map for around an hour, even though the film is crossing borders. While it defines slavery as present across the region, it never provides a wider context.

And so it went. The most telling 2 paragraphs of David Tiley’s article is here:

Polisario is clearly attacking details of a film which most of our readers have not seen, in order to question the whole, attacking the motivations of filmmakers, and painting itself as staggeringly benign.

It is possible to smell a number of rats in this situation, but the biggest rodent is being dragged around by Polisario. And the inadequacies of the filmmakers are clearly visible in the film.

So here we are with all this controversy about the film and whether it’s accurate or ethically compromised or even down right dodgy. Tiley’s being disingenuous himself when he argues that:

  • if Polisario is attacking the details in order to question the whole,
  • Then this imperfect procedure brings doubt on the Polisario’s main point
  • and therefore the Polisario cannot be itself staggeringly beign.

EXCEPT the third line also runs the same trope of questioning the detail in order to cast aspersion on the whole. You can’t condemn a method and then use it yourself to condemn a party.

It is logically self-defeating. But I guess it looks good on the page – until you put it to proper scrutiny. Not that I give a shit about the Polsiario and their politics. I’m sorry to disappoint some people, but this blog just isn’t about that part of the issue.

David Tiley also writes at the end:

Given the pressure that Polisario and its friends in Australia, particularly inside the ALP, have brought to bear on this matter, the statement is unsurprising.

But it does not represent either a shift in policy or a rejection – Screen Australia would never claim that a production it funded reflected any official point of view.

That’s a little slippery there. A non-endorsement does not mean a policy shift, true enough. However, a non-endorsement might easily mean it’s a rejection under the guise of plausible deniability, which is something you wouldn’t put past politicians and bureaucrats. i.e, we ARE rejecting it, but not in a way that says so.

Which happens to be exactly what they’re doing, as I’ve been told by people inside Screen Australia. So David Tiley’s assertion is flat out wrong.

The fact that Screen Australia would never claim that a production it funded reflect any official point of view, is not what is being questioned. What is being asked is why would Screen Australia make a point of its non-endorsement if not but to avoid legal ramifications? – Like, the absence of signed releases and that sort of thing, perhaps?

One thing I have noticed with the side of the film makers to date is that logic doesn’t seem to be their strong suit and truth claims seem to be too difficult for them to address. Instead, it’s the insidious machinations of the Polisario and its long reach across the globe that gets trotted out. Which it might well be, but even then the defenders of the film don’t seem to be on top of their philosophical position.

Maybe it’s a Post-Modern problem after all, where there is no fixed ‘Meaning’, only the small-m meaning we draw from the text and the very modality of the various modes of truth claims coalesce into a socially formed *meaning* kind of hyper-real relativist mind space. (Oh, get me my vomit bag!)

I have to confess I’m getting really tired of wrestling with this topic. It’s not much fun. And to that extent, I don’t take too kindly to the film makers.

For a start, the Gen Y film makers of ‘Stolen’ probably are generationally (and I do grossly generalise here but…) the sort of people who think nothing of illegally downloading pirate songs onto their iPods and iPhones and not bat an eye-lid at the copyright infraction. Run cracked versions of software on the computers, run pirated videos on their DVDs. Why on earth would they care about truth claims and verification and release forms and legalities? Why bother? Nobody ever knew nothing, right? Make up the meaning as you go along. Shout out long enough that there are slaves in the camps, maybe then the meaning of slavery will warp enough into the image they want? Nothing unethical in that is there? How could there be, when ethics itself can’t get established in the motile sea of flexible, ambiguous meaning?

Cue my Vomit bag, please.

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Another ‘Stolen’ Update

The Story Won’t Go Away

I’ve been meaning to link to this article.

Ayala and Fallshaw stood by the film, saying it had been verified by three separate translators including Sy, who works as a Hassaniya Arabic to English translator for the United States Immigration Court.

Sy went through the film with the documentary makers in February, pointing out several mistakes in their subtitles.

He said Ayala and Fallshaw wrote down his corrections and promised to alter the subtitles. They arranged to meet for a screening of the final cut, but cancelled the appointment.

“They told me they would send a copy of the film for me to check, but they didn’t,” Sy says from New York. “They didn’t respect their commitment to me. I was surprised and disappointed.”

He saw the final version of the film for the first time last week and was shocked at its inaccuracy. “There is still a lot of work to do on the film,” he says. “The translation I put on paper was correct. I went through [the film] minute by minute, but a lot of the mistakes have not been changed.”

In one scene Salam’s mother and sister appear to confirm that she is a slave to her white foster mother. More recent translations show they are discussing Ayala, who they say has misunderstood the family relationships.

Another problem was that some of the film’s dialogue was in a local dialect that Sy could not understand. “If you don’t live locally, you cannot understand what they say,” he says.

In an email to Sy on Thursday, seen by the Herald, Ayala and Fallshaw accused the translator of “negligence”.

They say he failed to tell them his concerns about the translations and has damaged the film’s credibility. In a statement, they suggested Sy’s comments were part of an ongoing campaign by the organisation that runs the refugee camps, the Polisario Front, to undermine the film.

I can’t begin to express how disturbed I am by the section above. Because of the events described, NAATI has been brought in to check the translations. This is hilarious in as much as NAATI can be pretty hit and miss. I get a lot of interpreting work from people and organs that have sworn off using NAATI interpreters. I won’t hold what they’ll say about it in high esteem, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

That being said, I have to remind readers that I’m still yet to take a position on whether these claims are true or not. I am however, greatly disturbed that there can be such radically different accounts by people in the film over what these film makers created. If this were fiction, it would be Arnie trying to tell us, “no, Jim Cameron is wrong!  The Terminator T-101 is a Hamlet figure straddling undecidablity and not an incarnation of Death’.

I mean, that would be weird, right?

Anyway… It’s been a while since the Sydney Film Festival and the controversy surrounding ‘Stolen’, a film that made the claim that there was slavery in the refugee camps in Western Sahara. Since then, the claim was vigorously challenged but we’re nowhere near closer to finding the truth.

The truth, in this instance a small-t kind of truth is something that we can epistemologically hang our hats on in as much as we hang our hats on common concepts such as, “the Allies won World War II” or “The Yankees have won the World Series 26 times to date”. i.e., we’d like to establish whether the film makers were right or wrong about their claims. Not 100% absolute Philosophical certainty, but the kind that can beat out reasonable doubt in a courtroom. That’s what we’re talking about here, nothing more, but nothing less.

In the time since the Sydney Film Festival, there has been little news except Ive noticed a couple of mentions in the internet. The first is some kind of piece that supports the film makers, though it is unclear to what degree critical thought has been applied to this article:

In their offensive, Polisario supporters have gathered together foreign journalists who do sympathise with their thesis, in order to send reports which go along with their thesis , by arguing that  victims filmed in “Stolen” withdraw their statements, on the basis that  they have been offered money by the filmmakers in order to confirm that their slaves.

Kamel Fadel, the Polisario representative in Australia recognised the fact that the victims have been controlled during the action led by Polisario’s supporters against the film.

Concerning Fatim’s arrival to Australia, he said: “it was not us who invited her; she was invited by the Australian association for Western Sahara (AWSA), and members of federal parliament.”He made this statement during the same program at ABC‘s radio about the film. But he recognized, at least, that he paid the trip for her:  “she is here in Sydney with the Australian Association for the Western Sahara “AWSA”, we have paid the tickets for her to come “.

Kamal fadel has tempted to  criticize the quality of translation of statements madder by people interviewed in the documentary, they accused the filmmakers to have made the victims say what they have not said. The supporters of the documentary have reminded that “a large party of the documentary was translated and broadcasted by AL – Jazera satellite TV.

All these attempts were a failure; even the international organizations recognize the slavery practices, according to the Australian filmmakers “ …. When we were talking about slavery on the ground , the UN officials  say they did not know that it exits but when we travelled to Geneva , the deputy director for North Africa in the UN organizations said that they know it exists in the area where the refugee camps .”

Several voices rose up to denounce this reality, particularly in the Australian media. As to Romana Cacchioli , of the organisation against slavery has asserted  that all sequences of the  documentary are truthful, he said to  3Brisbane Times” newspaper , that such similar cases do exist and were mentioned by the Spanish media .

During the evening of the 11th of June the day of projection of the documentary, Polisario supporters have tempted hopelessly to make this film festival a political event. They have brought Fatim from Tindouf camps straight to the Cinema which is situated at Boulevard June Georges in Sydney.   The fact of the matter is that she was brought to Australia, while she left behind in Tindouf camps her children, to make sure that her answer remains in agreement with what she was told to say.  Dan Fallshaw said in this respect:  “   We spoke briefly to her last night and all she said they told her not to talk to us”.

It’s a weird depiction of events, which closes with this gem:

It is worth mentioning that the film “Stolen “was financed by the movie organism “screen Australia”

Pretty funny. It reads like a puff piece primed to pump the credibility of the film’s claims, but I’m not really persuaded.

The opposing Polisario have made available their side of the argument:

The film purports, in a sensationalistic way, to reveal widespread evidence of racially based slavery in the Saharawi refugee camps on the Western Sahara-Algeria border. Central to the apparent scoop is an interview with Fetim Sallem, a 36-year-old mother of four. She was in Australia to explain her story, which is significantly at odds with the film’s take on it (so much so that Fetim requested unsuccessfully to have her interviews removed from the film).

Rather than verifying shaky claims of slavery and then seeking out the source of this possible ill (say in the repressive environment the Saharawi people have endured since the illegal invasion by Moroccan forces in 1975, an event that sent many into the camps that still exist today), the filmmakers of Stolen chose to conflate a few ill-gotten and misunderstood accusations into a tabloid expose. The approach of the film-makers challenges the very basis of the documentary genre and undermines its value as a means of serious scrutiny. In an age when reality TV is nothing of the sort and when celebrity gossip is considered hard news, this is perhaps not surprising. But it is disappointing and very distressing for those who, like Fetim, are vilified in the process.

There are fundamental flaws in the film-makers’ storyboard. Fetim is not a slave and widespread slavery simply does not exist in the Saharawi refugee camps. This fact has been confirmed by numerous visits by independent journalists and human rights reporters over the years.

A member of a delegation sent by Human Rights Watch to investigate the film-makers’ claims said the delegation ‘‘did not find evidence of forced labour, certainly not of slavery of the kind’’ in 19th century America.

The Saharawi live under great strain and considerable duress, brought about by decades of foreign occupation. A generation has grown up in a refugee environment. Our society is not perfect, our situation not Utopian. None is.
But, slavery is something Polisario abhors and is on the record as opposing. The practice is an unacceptable cultural anachronism and we have outlawed it completely since the inception of our independence movement in 1973.

Polisario has worked hard to address whatever human rights issues we find in our midst and we continue to undermine all forms of abuse and restrictions on liberty. This year, Polisario openly lobbied hard for the United Nations mandate to include a human rights monitoring process in its mission in Western Sahara. This was quashed by France, an erstwhile supporter of the Moroccan occupiers in Western Sahara, using its veto power in the Security Council.

Not sure I like the tone of that one either. Anybody else smell a rat?

I guess we’ll see what NAATI’s *ahem* expert interpreters have to say about this one. If it turns out that the slavery claims are totally the product of bad interpreters, I think the world will have a good hearty laugh. If the film makers claims are true, then perhaps even the controversy would have been of benefit to the cause of the people in these camps. My hunch, like most sceptics is that these filmmakers played hard and fast with the truth in order to get a good story, but like I said at the top, I’m reserving judgment on that one. Others are not so kind:

Ayala and Fallshaw say they have have been victims of a concerted campaign by the Polisario to discredit their revelations about the extent of slavery in the camps and that the Saharawi people who are now coming forward to retract their statements are doing so under duress.

They stand by their story citing a Human Rights Watch report produced in 2008. However, while the report stated that no evidence of slavery or domestic servitude was found in the camps, it identified some vestiges of related practices in the form of permissions for marriage. When questioned about the Human Rights Watch report on ABC radio, Ayala explained that you had to “read between the lines” to appreciate the full extent of the problem.

Stolen is not a controversial documentary. Stolen is a hoax — a case of two young filmmakers fudging the facts about a place so remote they thought they could get away with it. Film festivals should be very wary of screening it and Screen Australia should answer some serious questions about why it was ever funded.

You still have to question how such a compromised film got out to the public, let alone got itself into the Sydney Film Festival, but then what the hell do I know about the Sydney Film Festival? I’ve never understood it, let alone liked it, so I’ll pass on that one.

I don’t know how Screen Australia can come out looking good with all of this, but I’m sure they’ll find a way to spin it.

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Update on ‘Stolen’ Imbroglio

The Response

Tom Zubrycki and his two directors have put out a statement in response to the hoopla:

“Fellow filmmakers and colleagues,

We stand by the film we’ve made which raises the issue of slavery in the Tindouf refugee camps and Moroccan controlled Western Sahara.

The attack on the film is part of a sophisticated and well-resourced campaign by the Polisario, who run the camps. Bringing the main character out to Australia shows the lengths they are prepared to go to in order to stop the story.

We did not set out to make a film about slavery. It was only disclosed to us after 3 trips and 2 months in the camps. Originally we were invited to the camps by the Polisario. It was only after these disclosures became apparent that our relationship with the Polisario changed.

They detained us and attempted to seize the camera tapes and put pressure on our funding sources. Given they were unable to prevent the making of the film, they now attempt to undermine the credibility of us as filmmakers.

The claims of slavery made in the film are verified by three separate translators including a US Immigration Court certified translator. In addition the portions of the interviews relating to slavery were verified by Anti-Slavery International. Much of the discussion around slavery is conducted in Spanish, so Spanish speakers in Australia will be able to hear for themselves the accuracy of the translations.

We have chosen not to deal with the accusations in the recently released online interviews distributed by the Polisario. It¹s a pastiche of misinformation that’s being used to attack the revelations of the film. Many of those speaking to the camera have no relationship to the film. We were warned by our interviewees this would happen.

In the 7.30 report which went to air last night there were several inaccuracies:

1. Carlos Gonzales, the ‘independent’ filmmaker was introduced to us by Kamal Fadel, the Polisario representative to Australia. He has in the past made at least one pro-Polisario film. He is therefore hardly ‘independent’.

2. The story questions how we could have discovered slavery when no NGO¹s have ever found evidence of slavery in the camps. This is untrue. Human Rights Watch actually published a report in December 2008 finding evidence of slavery in the camps. This was never mentioned.

3. The supposed ‘incorrect’ translations. This is simply a tactic to distract from the real issue. As we stated earlier we have had the film verified by three separate translators, in Australia, Spain and the US. Nevertheless we will get the translations re-checked and if we find any discrepancies we will most certainly make corrections.

The report implies that these ‘incorrect’ translations are critical to the evidence of slavery, whereas slavery is discussed in many other scenes, in both Spanish and Hassaniya.

A Mauritanian who spoke at the opening of the film at the Sydney Film Festival said the response we have had shows we have ‘touched reality’.

Daniell Fallshaw, Violeta Ayala

Producer Tom Zubrycki”

I’ve posted the whole thing here in fairness to the film makers.

On the first point of dispute, even if the cinematographer was not completely independent, it begs the fact that there is no corroboration of the facts. At worst he might be a political sympathiser for a corrupt regime, but it still doesn’t mean he is completely discredited for his positioning.

On the second point, I don’t think there’s a translation problem here. It’s a problem with how the word slavery is bandied about when there are no people coming forth saying that there is slavery. In other words, the distinct possibility of gross misrepresentation is what is being discussed. Not, the translation of words. That alone should be sending alarm bells to Mr. Zubrycki, but instead he would like us to consider that the translations were correct, therefore the message of the film is correct. Do you feel a spin doctor spinning this one?

On the third point, which is a re-statement of the second point; once again, it’s not a translation issue, but how exactly the subjects are being characterised. It’s the suggestion of gross misrepresentation that is still not being addressed.

It may still come out that they are right and that the Polisario really are putting this woman up to the counter-claim and that the cinematographer is partial to the Polisario regime – In which case I’ll retract my previous post.

If, however should it be shown conclusively that indeed this film misrepresented what it was allegedly depicting, there is no way these people should be allowed to continue as doco makers on government grants.

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Slave To The Funding

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.

Worse still, there’s this interchange here with Kerry O’Brien and the 7:30 report.

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.

…and then:

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?

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