Eloy Domínguez Serén is the director of the documentary film “Hamada”, about the daily life of three young Sahrawis in the refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria. With vitality, humor and unexpected scenarios, the film paints an unusual portrait of a group of young friends living in a camp in the middle of the stony Saharan desert. “Hamada” premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) on November 15, 2018 and has since screened at film festivals in Gijón, Spain, where it was awarded Best Spanish Film and Best Spanish Director, and Porto, Portugal, where it received an award for Best Emerging Director. Muftah spoke with the director the week before the premiere of “Hamada” at the IDFA.
Muftah: How did you end up making this film?
Eloy Domínguez Serén (EDS): I was a cinema teacher in the film school in the Boujdour camp. I also taught Spanish. I was only there as a film teacher. But then every time I came back I would combine filming and teaching.
You have built this rapport, this very close relationship, with the three main characters: Sidahmed, Taher and Zaara. They participated in your workshops. But I understood they also had quite a significant role in developing the movie?
EDS: Yes, absolutely. As many other young people in the camps they were also involved with the film school; they were students and after they were students they were still involved. Sidahmed even started to collaborate as a teacher while finishing his studies. Zaara was the only female student in her year. Taher was there for some months as well. Many of my students had never touched a camera so my main focus in the beginning was to help them tell their own stories. Some of them were not very motivated as they didn’t know what to talk about. I started to film cars in order to encourage them. I would go out with my camera and take stills of cars and that’s how the project started.
In my specific project, their involvement was essential because they would improvise whatever they wanted to do every day. In that sense, they are actually the core of the film because I would just follow them. I had blind faith in them because, of course, I don’t speak the language so I knew that something was happening but I didn’t know exactly what. They were the right characters for the film because of their temperament. They complemented each other very well.
At the same time there is also a lot chemistry between them. There have been, of course, several films about the Sahrawis and Western Sahara. Most of them are, if I may put it that way, political. In your film, politics is, of course, present as you have to give the viewers context, but it also really expresses what life is like for the average young person. To what extent was that a conscious choice you made and to what extent was it determined by the main character?
EDS: As you said, several projects have been done about the camps and I felt that all of them have value. I think that those films are very important. I decided to make what I consider a political film as well, but my political approach or choice was based on one main idea: to give the Sahrawis themselves a voice. Sahrawi society in general and the youngsters, in particular, feel nobody listens to them. My choice was to listen to their conversations, to their interactions, and to see what they were really worried about and how they felt about their daily situation. The film includes a lot of dialogue, which is very rare for my other films actually. I wanted to go deep into this society, into this specific age range, which is between 20 and 27 more or less, and try to understand how it is to be a young person, in such an important time of your life, in a place like this.
You focus on the driving, which has a very important role in the camps. Cars represent mobility yet at the same time you very clearly show all the challenges of even getting a car, keeping cars running, and then, once all that has been achieved, figuring out where to go. Ultimately, that mobility doesn’t quite exist beyond the borders of the camps, between the camps, and driving to Tindouf. To what extent was this something you consciously chose to be a thread in your film?
EDS: Actually, this film was originally about cars. I never had a plot in my mind, but I always thought that cars were a magnificent symbol to explain the Sahrawi identity in a way. Especially the Landrover, which is a huge symbol for them. They have songs, they have poems about the Landrover because they were used in the war with Morocco, as homemade tanks. But they were also used during the exodus. Many families would travel in them with the few belongings they had. At the same time, cars are related to memory and belonging. Nowadays, of course, they are also a symbol of status. There exists a kind of generational conflict between Landrover and Mercedes, because young people want Mercedes, but they know Landrover is the best car. They all want to have a car even though it cannot really take them anywhere because of their status of refugees; they have very limited mobility. For me, this is a big paradox that helps us understand the conflict. There is a scene in the film in which Sidahmed joins a group of foreigners driving to Tifirati. For me it was so impressive to see all these cars driving in the middle of the desert without any kind of orientation that I could understand. No roads, no signs, nothing. I was talking to one of the drivers, who was a very close friend of mine, and he told me: this is who we are, we are nomads. The desert is our lungs and this what we do.
The movie tells the story of how, to some degree, many youngsters feel hopeless. At the same time, the film is hilarious in so many ways. I loved the opening scene and, of course, the ending. Without giving it all away, did you have to stage this?
EDS: No, actually, it was real. There is a gap of two years between the first scene with Sidahmed and the last one with Taher. The first scene with Zaara was the first time she was in a car. This last scene was almost one of the last scenes I filmed.
It is very interesting that there are no “adults” in the film. There are a few adults, who almost function as extras. But otherwise it is all about the three main characters and some other young people. Was that a conscious choice or more a matter of you being so intertwined in the lives of these young people?
EDS: It was conscious, at a certain point. Beyond my Sahrawi family, I was mostly with young people. I would spend time with them and film them, but at the same time, since I was making a film about cars, I spent many hours in cars, as well in as in different garages. In that footage, there were a lot of adults and, of course, mainly adult men. But then I started to realize, quite late, that the young people were the main characters and I focused more on them. I also understood it was good for the film to focus only on them because adults have a more clearly defined political perspective and they more or less have strong ideas that they keep and communicate. For the young generation, the political came by talking about other things. Every time I would approach adults about a political issue they would tell me what they thought I wanted to hear. But the young people were much more spontaneous.
By leaving adults out of the frame, I also felt I was showing the private world of these young people. In a typical Sahrawi house, there are nine people sharing the same room, sleeping in the same room. This world we created, this was only for the young people.
Do you have future projects on Western Sahara in mind? You told me the project originally was about cars. Do you have any other themes you would like to develop?
EDS: From a personal perspective, I still come back to the camps. I have what I consider a family there. I feel very connected to the place. From a cinematic point of view, I have many hours of footage, which was not part of the film, with many different people. I was shooting eight months with many different people and many different situations. It really broke my heart during the editing process to have to remove scenes. In any case, my producers and I have spoken about making a photo exhibition with the many beautiful pictures. And this can help bring even more knowledge about the conflict. Anything that can help bring visibility would be very welcome. But first I would like to share this film with the world and discuss it as much as possible. For example, the day after the screening in Santiago de Compostela, a very important Spanish journalist and writer who has also been in the camps, will join us for a roundtable about the conflict. People here in Santiago will get to know the Sahrawis. That is also why this film is so intimate. I think suddenly they are not a number, they are not 150,000 Sahrawi people living in the desert. They are Zaara, they are Taher, they dream, they laugh, they dance, they like cars. If we can get people closer to this community maybe somehow we can make a bigger impact. And maybe people can raise their voices. Even though the political situation is very complicated.