Thursday, 21 May 2009

Sandblast @ New Internationalist

Stefan Simanowitz did it again! The journalists, broadcaster and human rights campaigner thankfully features yours truly in the New Internationalist on May 20. The article "Screenings in the Devil's Garden: The Sahara Film Festival" deals with the annual transformation of the refugee camps to a Cannes of a different nature. By converting the tented "homes" of an exiled people to a place of film culture and art, the government-in-exile and the part of the international community that does not look away attempt to raise awareness for the Western Sahara dispute and put the people, their sufferings and their hopes on the map.
Simanowitz gives a great, almost heart-breaking account of the Saharawi endurances and closes his account with a very personal revelation:

"I touch down in London, dusty and somewhat dazed, but with a rare clarity of purpose. The next day at work I take my boss aside and hand her my letter of resignation. Whilst staying in refugee camp in Dakhla, I realized that the lack of international awareness of the Saharawis’ struggle makes their desperate situation feel even more hopeless than it already is. And so I have resolved to give up my day job and work with the Free Western Sahara Campaign to help move the story of the Saharawi refugees off the culture pages of a few magazines reporting on the film festival and on to the international pages of all newspapers, where it belongs." (Simanowitz 2009)

This life-changing decision is eye-opening and admirable. His conclusions revive the belief in self-less philanthropy as well as they reinforce a pessimistic perspective onto the state of journalistic media. Kudos to you, Stefan!

Friday, 15 May 2009

The Independent: How a Saharan Refugee Camp Launched an International Film Festival

In covering the Sahara International Film Festival, Stefan Simanowitz's article in The Independent features both Sandblast, the Caravanserai Acting Studios and Free Western Sahara Campaign: "A company of actors from London performed a play based on the real story of a Saharawi refugee to raucous audience reaction, and a team from Roehampton University, led by the professor Isabel Santaolalla, a trustee of the London-based Saharawi charity, Sandblast, ran a "digital postcard" workshop. The postcards filmed by refugees have been put online, allowing their messages to be seen around the world and by their extended families living in occupied Western Sahara."

Simanowitz's piece contextualises the festival and its film resources in its conflictuous environment by drawing upon the historical determinants and witness reports of a 32-year old woman who has lived her whole life in the camps. He also touches on the delicate reliance of the Saharawi and their friends on celebrities to pledge on their behalf for increased publicity. Simanowitz wrote: "The publicity has helped campaigners in Spain to gather a quarter of a million signatories to petition the Spanish government to act to support the Saharawis' demand for self-determination. The festival has two aims: to provide entertainment and educational opportunities for the refugees, and to raise awareness of the situation of the Saharawi people, who have been in exile from Western Sahara for more than 30 years."

Simanowitz may possibly go too far with framing this cultural event as something that "gives the people in the camps a sense of purpose". According to the article, Jadiya Hamdi, the Minister of Culture of the SADR, is quoted to say, that "empty time is a dangerous things. It can kill a human soul". In my personal opinion, this is not giving this artful and cultural effort enough credit and undermines the incentives and the work the Saharawi, international volunteers and other parties put into the project.

Am I wrong in this interpretation of the article? What do you think?

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Press release: UK charity Sandblast launches "Running the Sahara 2010" in support of the Saharawi refugees

On June 12th, Sandblast holds a multimedia launch at London-based Caravanserai Acting Studios to begin recruiting over 100 people for the 10th Saharamarathon in February 2010. Not to be confused with the Marathon de Sables, this cultural evening will inform about the sporting event in the Algerian desert in support of the Saharawi refugees. The Saharawi situation will be introduced by a short documentary, “Deserted” (2007), and the UK premiere of selected preview scenes from the first British-Saharawi play, “The Other Side of the Wall”, directed by Caravanserai founder, Giles Foreman.

The international sporting event takes place in the Saharawi refugee camps in the Algerian Sahara near Tindouf. A full 42-km marathon as well as shorter races of 5km, 10km and a half marathon are organized. Participants live with individual refugee families during their weeklong stay in the camps. The camp-based Saharawi government-in-exile and international volunteers have organized and hosted the event since 2000, to show solidarity with the Saharawi people and raise money for projects to improve the lives of the long-term refugees.

The Saharamarathon, in February 2009, had over 400 participants from Europe and the US. 24 came from the UK and helped raise over £10,000 for the Saharawi Artist Fund, set up by Sandblast to run regular art workshops in the camps and provide vital training and resources for cultural and economic empowerment. The UK contingent included fourteen young professional actors from Caravanserai. They gave introductory acting workshops and developed further “The Other Side of the Wall” that will be premiered in London in July and tour in 2010. During their visit, the Saharawi Culture Ministry requested their help to build a national theatre and set up a film production company in the camps.

Sandblast works to give the Saharawis a voice through the arts and is the official UK facilitator for the Saharamarathon in 2010, with the support of the Polisario Front office in London, the diplomatic representation of the Saharawis in the UK. For the 2010 race, the charity Sandblast aims to fill an entire Air Algerie plane for UK participants. With the funds raised through their participation and other donations, Sandblast aims to set up a professional mobile recording studio and train Saharawis to run it in the camps.