Reviews Short Documentary

Dajla: Cinema and Oblivion (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Arturo Dueñas Herrero

Running time: 15mins

Dajla: Cinema and Oblivion is possibly the most dispiriting film I could have watched, before Indy Film Library hosts its annual film screenings in April. Taking place in a remote desert encampment in Algeria, the action consists of 10 minutes of windswept dunes, forlorn dirt-roads and long treks through the endless sand, interrupted by five minutes of bells and whistles courtesy of the FiSahara Western Sahara International Film Festival. Audiences gather, directors and dignitaries make speeches, movies roll, then the show packs up and leaves, apparently leaving the locals with only the songs of the wind for company.

The wordless assertion seems to be that the event was pointless, having failed to materially improve the lives of Dakhla (or Dajla, depending on who you ask) – a refugee camp, populated by the Western Sahara’s indigenous Sahrawi people, who were displaced by Morocco’s annexation of the area. I would argue that somewhat oversells what film, culture or philosophy actually offer. Billy Bragg will regularly remind audiences at his gigs that music doesn’t alter the world, people do – a paraphrasing of Marx’s famous line on philosophers only interpreting the world, but the point being to change it. Similarly, filmmakers do not claim to have an inherent ability to correct the world simply by releasing their work. It must be received and interpreted by people willing to act on its content.

The problem here is that we have no idea how the audiences of the refugee camp are interacting with the films. Are they taking messages to heart which will strengthen their resolve? Are they being primed to ask questions which may change the way life in the camp works? Are they simply going through the motions to escape their daily drudgery? We cannot know the answer to any of those questions – not least because we really do not know anything about those daily conditions.

Arturo Dueñas Herrero does not bother to talk to any of the Dakhla camp’s residents, before or after the screenings. Instead, he leans on director of photography Álvaro Sanz Pascual’s fly-on-the-wall footage to paint the picture of a camp marooned in the past, briefly interacting with a tokenistic element of modernity, before returning to a quiet life of tedium. As beautiful as that imagery is, presenting it as some kind of organic truth is a sticky issue, in my opinion.

You might argue I am the one reading all of the above assertions into the film, as it has no narration or subtitling from Herrero. There does seem to be an idea that documentaries retain a kind of ideological purity in this way, simply painting life as it is, and so any additional meaning is only derived by the audience. That is simply not true.

Whichever ideological sleight of hand they deploy, with or without a direct narrator, documentary makers construct imagery priming us toward thinking about certain things we would otherwise not have considered. Every shot that is used – or not used, for that matter – is a choice, which creates its own ideas and assertions.

In the case of Dakhla’s refugee camp, omitting huge swathes of information on its creation and maintenance is a particularly pointed choice. After the credits rolled, I had to do quite a bit of reading to even get a rough understanding of the context here. Since annexing Western Sahara in the 1970s, Morocco has constructed a wall between areas it controls, and those still held by Polisario rebels. The border has displaced thousands of families, separating some for more than 30 years.

Meanwhile, conditions in the refugee camps of Algeria are far from idyllic. UN reports suggest the residents lack consistent access to nutrition and medicine. Beside a single shot of bags of grain from Brazil and Spain, and a hint at some form of water-rationing, the film does little to highlight these conditions. Nor does it do much to ask why, despite these conditions, they seem so determined to stand their ground when it comes to the future of the Western Sahara.

The filmmakers point cameras at people skilfully pouring tea from a great height endlessly, pledging allegiance to the flag of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. But they never seem interested in why it is the case. At the same time, we never see how the film festival might have had an impact on that determination. Were the films a reminder to the audience of what they were suffering for, a suggestion that their struggles might be worth something in the end, encouraging them to fight on? If that was the case, you might very well claim those movies succeeded, where much of the cinema in the global north has failed.

Rather than discuss any of this, though, the film dedicates its most discernible narrative strand to some young women who are finding it hard to build lives for themselves in Dakhla. After reams of footage depicting the barren surroundings, one woman tells her friend she has just bought a building with the aim of turning it into a ‘beauty salon’. Unfortunately, without links to the outside world she cannot source the materials needed to operate it, and so cannot afford to keep up with payments on the property.

Here we have a very particular conflict then; the historic determination for indigenous rights for the Sahrawi people, which has left them isolated and impoverished, standing in the path of ‘modernity’, and the determination of the young camp residents looking to build new lives. This seems to suggest that the former is simply a waste of time, like the performative film festival, defined by aimless rituals that mask a backward and boring way of life. And it seems to suggest it would be worth abandoning these performances for the sake of a ‘progress’ which consists of fulfilling a certain set of capitalist norms.

Whatever you make of that, it is diminished by Cinema and Oblivion’s reluctance to actually give its subjects a voice. If one person in particular is struggling to define their own future amid all this, how do they see it – and is the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario really the only reason for this? After all, the refugees on screen are Algerian. What rights or restrictions do they have there? What is it that keeps them committed to their struggle, in spite of this? And would they really want ‘progress’ if it meant giving up on that?

Herrero’s previous effort, Built Lands, is another documentary that avoids a straightforward narration. But in that case, it arguably still works, because he is more willing to give his subjects a chance to speak for themselves. The kind of trust he was willing to afford Spanish survivors of Franco’s fascist regime should be the same trust he would give to refugees in the Dakhla camp. For whatever reason, it was not – and the film suffers for it; coming across with the demeanour of the archetypical anthropologist, staring down their nose at cultures ‘less advanced’ than their own while overlooking the shortcomings of their own normative worldview.

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