Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Robbed of truth?
In Stolen a camel is chosen, dragged bellowing toward a truck, seen travelling many miles with a quirky expression on its likeable, nose-wriggling face, then later by moonlight, shrieking and hooting, its throat cut, gushes its blood towards Mecca in accordance with the provisions of the Law. After this we see dancing and ululating veiled black women at a reunion party in which the camel, drained of its blood, is roasted and eaten in the first such feast in the village in 30 years.
This sequence was made possible by Violeta Ayala, the co-director, giving the hungry villagers the price of the camel, something they otherwise could never have afforded, and suggesting they enact for the cameras this ugly, disturbing, highly cinematic ritual.
Why do we see this? The film is supposedly about the persistence of slavery in the refugee camps of the Saharawi people in sand-swept Algeria. Why show this? We do not usually see headless, flapping, blood-spurting turkeys before Thanksgiving dinners in Hollywood films. Why do this? Why show it? Why cause it to happen, as the director in her narration admits she did?
I got into a loud fight with her and her co-director, saw in video interviews what the film's subjects thought of it, interviewed one of them myself (with, admittedly the help of a Polizari lawyer, Kamal Fadel, who is also the attache for East Timor), and became pretty depressed that this film exists, and has been premiered, and I'll tell you why.
It's because we see and are told almost nothing of this culture that slaughters a camel once in 30 years and practises, allegedly, slavery. We do not know how they feed themselves or school themselves, what creed they practise, what church or mosque they attend, how their economy works, who they marry, how many spouses they have, what age they marry, if girls can choose their spouse, how often they pray, how their economy works, what sort of health care they get (good, I later learned, and totally free), if they can vote in elections, if they are semi-fascist or semi-communist or communitarian, and so on.
We are not even told that the central character, Fetim, has a husband, Baba, who works in Spain, has an engineering degree from Cuba and sends her money from Spain. She is presented as a single mother and (it is rumoured) a slave.
Baba and Fetim attended the film's world premiere and showed their passports to the audience and said the whole family holiday frequently together in Spain unharassed by the Polizario, and how can this be?
Slaves with passports? What is this? Slaves flying Qantas and staying unpoliced with Meredith Burgmann, the former President of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, in Glebe?
"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.
Murder is my word; I withdraw it; murder is unfair.
Why did they do this? Was it to show they were bad people, capable of not only ritually killing a camel but even, possibly, slavery?
In the Nazi film The Eternal Jew laughing rabbis cut a cow's throat and the blood gushes copiously and they laugh some more - gaily, wickedly, unpleasantly. Is this the same propaganda trick? I doubt it.
The young Bondi couple that made this film seem too naïve, too unprepared for the great world for that.
For if indeed the people they show on screen are slaves, they have endangered their lives - by showing their faces and alleging they collude in a monstrous illegality that could see their owners gaoled or incite them persecutors into honour-killing them for letting it out.
If they are not slaves they will have brought shame on their community with this blood-libel, this heinous falsehood and their community will shun them hereafter. Or am I wrong?
But the on-screen Saharawi are saying in interview after interview that they did not say this, they did not say they were slaves, and their words were manipulated or falsified. And their words in the film are being deciphered by a man from Al-Jazeera and a man from the UN to see if they match the subtitles.
If the spoken and printed word do not conform (one apparently says not 'Fetim is a slave' but 'Violeta wants us to say Fetim is a slave'), a lot of slander will have occurred, and the publishers of it, whoever they are, will be liable, I imagine, for a good deal of negotiated retribution. And so will the forgers of the subtitles, whoever they are.
Will Dan and Violeta go to jail? Probably not. Should they? I'm not sure.
If they had made a film saying cannibalism persisted in certain Maori encampments in New Zealand, and this published rumour was false, they would have committed (I think) no less grave a crime. And I'm not sure any apology would have allayed it.
There may be other explanations for what has thus far occurred at this Sydney Film Festival (the organisers refused to screen Fetim's friends' and allies' 15-minute rebuttal though they had 30 hours before the festival finished to check it out and do so), a film about slavery in which no slavery is seen.
But none of them will recover, I fear, the $230,000 or so (which could I imagine buy back a whole lot of slaves) of government money spent thus far on this ill-informed, ill-evidenced and arguably addled rumination.
Or am I wrong