Fetim Sellami: 'I am not a slave'

June 20, 2009

Saharawi refugee and preschool teacher Fetim Sellami is a central character in the Australian documentary Stolen, a film set in the refugee camps in south-west Algeria that have been home to 165,000 Saharawi refugees since their country, Western Sahara, was invaded by Morocco in 1975.

However, when she and her husband, Baba Hocine Mahfoud, attended its June 11 premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, they did not receive red carpet treatment, despite the long distance they had travelled.

The film alleges that slavery is widespread in the camps and that Sellami and her family are slaves. She came to Australia to expose the film as a fraud.

"The film-makers were surprised, but not happy, to see me because they knew I'd tell the truth", she told Green Left Weekly.

She said she felt personally betrayed. "I believed the film-makers' good intentions and I treated them well ... I opened my house and my heart to them ... I felt very bad [that] my dignity was attacked with baseless allegations."

Moreover, she was concerned the film undermined the cause of the Saharawi people's struggle against the Moroccan occupation. "Morocco has taken advantage of the film's allegations [which are] the first time ever allegations of slavery in the camps have been made."

She said that the film's co-directors, Violetta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw, had led her to believe they were making "a documentary on family separation, a film about the story of my [UN-facilitated] reunion with my mother, which would help the cause of Western Sahara, highlighting the suffering caused by the Moroccan occupation".

However, "on their second visit I began to realise they'd changed course. They started asking questions about slavery ... I'm not sure whether they came up with the idea themselves or had external influence".

She sent a signed statement to the filmmakers, withdrawing her consent to be featured in the documentary. The film-makers ignored her wishes, claiming she was being manipulated by the Saharawi independence movement, Polisario, which runs the camps.

She then sent a video statement to Screen Australia, which funded the film a $300,000 public grant. But again her statement was ignored.

The true story of Sellami's separation from her mother is typical of the Saharawi experience.

She was three years old and at a neighbour's house when the brutal Moroccan invasion occurred. Her mother was out of town and the neighbour, a woman called Deido, took Sellami with her when she fled the invaders, effectively becoming her foster mother.

Deido left behind her own 3 year old daughter who happened to be with Deido's mother at the time of the invasion.

However, in a synopsis posted on the Documentary Australia Foundation's website in September 2008, Ayala and Fallshaw claimed "it wasn't the territorial conflict that separated Fetim from her mother. Fetim was born a slave."

They claimed black Saharawi are held as slaves by their lighter-skinned compatriots who "made the decision to flee to the refugee camps in Algeria taking their slaves with them, separating the black families once again".

Ayala and Fallshaw's cinematographer, Carlos Gonzalez disputed the allegations. "During the three weeks I spent there with them I saw absolutely no indication of slavery", he told the 7.30 Report on June 15.

He returned to the camps by himself and spoke to members of Sellami's family who said they had been misquoted and mistranslated. Some black Saharawi men said the film makers had paid them to say they were slaves on camera.

"No, we didn't pay them any money", Ayala told the 7.30 Report, but then conceded: "Like, we gave them money when they came to Mauritania, we gave them money to go back to the camps."

She gave no explanation as to why slaves would want money to return to their cruel masters.

She also denied dialogue in the film had been mistranslated.

However, the 7.30 Report had sequences of the film translated by Al Jazeera television. In one scene, in which the film-makers' subtitles show Sellami's mother and sister confirming that she is a slave, the Al Jazeera translation shows that they were in fact discussing the film-makers' misconceptions on the issue.

How involved the Moroccan dictatorship was in making the film is unclear. However, Ayala and Fallshaw admit that some of the footage was transported in Moroccan diplomatic bags.

The film's co-directors, and producer Tom Zubrycki, accused the film's critics — including Sellami, Mahfoud and Gonzalez — of being manipulated by Polisario. They imply Polisario is complicit in slavery.

GLW journalist Margarita Windisch visited the camps in 2008 as part of a delegation to the congress of the Saharawi trade union confederation, UGTSARIO. She told GLW: "I certainly saw no evidence of slavery. If they wanted to make a film about slavery perhaps they should have investigated conditions of phosphate workers in the Moroccan-occupied zone. Australian companies are involved in this."

Sellami and Mahfoud's real lives give credence to Polisario's claim to have the best-run refugee camps in the world. Mahfoud studied electronic engineering in Cuba and now works in Madrid.

One of their four children has studied in Spain. The family spend their holidays together, either in Spain or in the camps. Their level of international travel should dispel any notion that they are slaves.

When Sellami and Mahfoud confronted Ayala and Fallshaw during the question-and-answer session at the premiere, they were jeered and heckled by the film-makers' supporters.

"This film is the worst thing that's ever been made on Western Sahara, a big lie", Sellami told GLW. "If the film-makers wanted fame or money they should have tried in an honourable way."

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