Slaves To The Story?


Fetim Sellami immediately reminded me of the strong, gracious women I had met in the Western Sahara refugee camps in 2004 when I toured there with then-president of the NSW Upper House, Meredith Burgmann. Sitting on Burgmann’s couch in inner city Glebe — where she stayed while in Sydney — Sellami chatted happily in Hassaniya with her husband and smiled at our clumsy attempts to communicate.

However, when asked about her experience with Australian filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw, her demeanour darkened. "We welcomed them into our homes. We fed them. And they made up terrible lies about us."

Fetim Sellami travelled to Sydney from a remote refugee camp in North Africa infuriated by their controversial documentary, Stolen, that claims she is a slave. Far from being a slave, Fetim is a kindergarten teacher.

The film has caused a furore over its allegation that slavery — black Africans owned by Arab families — is common place in the refugee camps where 165,000 Saharawi refugees have lived since Morocco invaded their country of Western Sahara in 1976. The camps are administered by the Polisario, the Western Sahara liberation movement.

Historically, slavery existed in the region but it is now outlawed throughout North Africa, although there are still concerns about residual practices especially in Niger and Mauritania. Like everyone else with a connection to the camps, I was shocked when I heard about the allegations of entrenched slavery and was keen to know more.

However, what is presented in Stolen is not a rigorous account of a serious issue. Rather, evidence is mounting that the story is concocted and that the filmmakers’ approach was unethical.

The furore presents real problems for the film’s producer, Tom Zubrycki, and the funding body, Screen Australia, who invested over $250,000 in the project.

Sellami is not the only one furious at the filmmakers’ tactics. Deputy Director of the UNHCR Bureau for Middle East and North Africa, Ursula Aboubacar’s interview was used in Stolen to give credibility to the slavery claim.

I felt uncomfortable about the way the interview had been used — it was clearly heavily edited and the only time slavery was mentioned was by the filmmakers themselves — so I wrote to Ursula to ask her how she felt about the film. She sent me a copy of an email she sent to the filmmakers on 21 June 2009. It was titled "protest".

In it she claims the filmmakers used an interview with her without her consent. "Despite my written request to you for my formal clearance to use my voice or face in your documentary in the Tindouf camps you went ahead without my clearance … The release form you gave me for signature is still with me."

She went on to write:

"I strongly protest the way you manipulated my one hour interview … into the short compilation of sentences …

I stated clearly from the very beginning, and on several occasions throughout the interview, that never any case of slavery [in the camps]has been brought to the attention of UNHCR which obviously you did not like and made you very aggressive …

While you continued to focus on slavery practices in the camps only, I explained that slavery is an issue to be seen in a regional, traditional and cultural practice which will take a long time to completely eradicate. This was the only moment I mentioned the camps as, per se, they are part of the sub-region.

Again you manipulated these statements in the most abusive way and took them out of their context for your own purposes."

A statement distributed after the film’s release by Ayala, Fallshaw and Zubrycki as a response to the film’s critics states that "UNHCR state in the film that they know slavery exists in the camps". But Ursula Aboubacar makes it clear she didn’t.

Ayala told that there was "nothing untoward" about the interview with Aboubacar. She explains the process like this: "We requested an official on-camera interview with UNHCR in Geneva to talk about our discovery of slavery in the camps. Ursula was presented to us as their spokesperson. The interview was done in December 2007.

"We provided Ursula with a release form. She answered that she didn’t need to sign it because she was appointed by UNHCR to do the interview … We intend to show the whole unedited interview to the High Commissioner in Geneva.

"Ursula is not the only person at the UN that we’ve been in contact with. We screened the film to the High Commission for Human Rights in New York … [and to]all of Ursula’s colleagues in New York [before it was released]. They did not raise any issues with the way that Ursula was portrayed." (Ayala provided this transcript of the interview with Aboubacar, as it appears in the film.)

But the list of allegations against the makers of Stolen grows daily. Most of the Saharawi people in the film, including Fetim Sellami who spoke publicly at the film’s premiere, have now made statements withdrawing from the film (Sellami also told me she had never signed a documentary release form). Some of the English subtitles were also found to be false by an Al Jazeera interpreter commissioned by the 7:30 Report.

Carlos Gonzalez, the American cinematographer who worked with Ayala and Fallshaw on their second trip to the camps, was so disturbed by their subsequent actions that he returned to the camps. He recorded on-camera admissions by interviewees that they were directed by the filmmakers to say what they did and that their statements about slavery were untrue.

The film’s supporters howled down Sellami’s appearance at the Sydney Film Festival as a cover up organised by the Polisario and Gonzalez has been labelled a Polisario operative.

The film is also exploitative: Sellami’s teenage daughter appears to be used in the film to stir up debate about the slavery issue. Her parents were so concerned by this manipulative approach that Sellami’s husband, Baba Hocine, tells me he wrote to Tom Zubrycki in 2007 stating that "no information may be used under any circumstances if it affects in any way my children who, being minors, should be protected everywhere in the world."

Incidentally, Baba Hocine, a Cuban-trained engineer who lives and works in Spain earning money to send back to his family in the camps, was also interviewed for the film. But his story did not fit the film’s depiction of Fetim Sellami and he is not mentioned once in the final documentary.

Part way through the film, Ayala and Fallshaw insert themselves into the drama and the political conflict. They flee the camps after hiding their tapes in the desert and claiming to be detained by the Polisario. They meet a Moroccan official in Paris with whom they discuss their discovery of slavery. They agree to travel to New York with him and take up his offer to send their retrieved tapes out of Mauritania via a Moroccan diplomatic bag. To the apparent surprise of the filmmakers, their footage is then screened as propaganda on Moroccan TV before their film is released.

Australians from the Australian Western Sahara Association who were concerned by the activities of Ayala and Fallshaw wrote to Screen Australia over a year ago. Most never received a response. A year later, and just weeks before the film’s premiere, the Polisario Representative in Australia, Kamal Fadel, eventually met with Screen Australia’s CEO and as a result received a written response.

In it, Screen Australia acknowledged the seriousness of matters related to the accuracy of the film’s claims about the Polisario’s laws on slavery, the treatment of Sellami, and the involvement of Morocco. Screen Australia expressed its faith in Tom Zubrycki and assured Fadel that these matters had been raised with the producer, and that they would be addressed.

Despite the numerous concerns, however, Zubrycki never went to the camps to test the filmmakers’ claims for himself. The end result is a film that undermines the integrity of an industry that Zubrycki himself has worked so hard to build. At what point is Screen Australia required to justify why public money allowed this film to go ahead and why they chose to ignore credible warnings that their own policies were being disregarded?

Ayala and Fallshaw say they 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 that 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.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.