I want to start the film with the 'wall of shame' as it is known from a beautiful song, as a way to introduce the history of Western Sahara. In order to get there, we had to get permission of the Polisario Protocol Bureau and get a police car escort. I asked Khadra if she would consider coming with us. She immediately accepted and offered that some of her family members join us. That meant two daughters and her son and his wife and a few kids!
They asked me to go and buy camel meat so we could have a picnic in the desert. The two Land Rovers were loaded with pots and pans and meat. It took a 2-hour drive across sand and stone to get there. The police car was driving sometimes at the front, sometimes at the back, trying to foresee danger. It felt like we were in a car chase movie! Meanwhile in our Land Rover, music was blasting out of the speakers and the women were waving their arms in the air and singing along. They have many revolutionary songs with wonderful rhythms. It was impossible to film or take photos, as the car was shaking so much. But I want you to imagine those beautiful, rather large women, with every inch of skin covered but their eyes. And some of them had large black sunglasses. In total disguise, yet having the time of their lives!
Once we were 5km away from the 'wall', we had to abandon the car and leave the police behind. We walked a little bit closer with Khadra and the camera. The sight of the wall was very disappointing because it was so far away – and made out of sand, so well integrated into the landscape that it looked like a long dune. We couldn't get any closer because of the 8 million landmines the Moroccan army had placed along their 3,000km-long wall. If that wasn't enough of a deterrant, the soldiers kept their beady eyes and binoculars on us all the time. Khadra just sat on the ground, in profound silence, looking towards them. Later on, she started improvising a new poem, an angry lament remembering the land she was forced to leave behind. It was quite a contrasting mood to the mobile discotheque we had travelled in.
Soon everyone was getting impatient to find a spot for the picnic. We had to drive for quite a while to find a tiny bush for a bit of shade. Of course the minute the family was out of the car, the very first thing was to make tea. The men went off looking for firewood (not easy) to complement the charcoal we had brought with us, and proceeded to start a fire for the tea, a fire for the cooking pot, as well as a fire for baking bread. The driver rolled up his sleeves and, with a mechanic's hands, started making bread. He then digged a hole into the sand and put the dough into it, covered it with ashes and bingo, and several hours later, we have the most delicious bread ever. It was surreal – having this feast in the middle of the desert, and seeing the family enjoying being Bedouins once again.
We wanted to film Khadra sharing her poems with the younger generation. Women were crucial to the development of the camps while the men were at war. Women are encouraged to study and contribute to the development of their society. The '27 February Camp' is their cultural centre, and recently a school of music and a school of cinema have been created. We took Khadra to the school of cinema so she could meet those future cultural ambassadors and see how a younger generation reacts to her poems. They could not get enough!
It was full moon, and I was very keen to get Khadra to a remote spot in the dunes, close to her childhood memories, and record some of her poems there. Once again, she was game for it and so was the rest of the family. So another expedition was organised – with even more family members and even more kids. What had been a beautiful dune landscape of waving sand got destroyed right away by the kids running up and down. Can't blame them: they are surrounded by stones, so the softness of the dunes was very appealing to them. The adults immediately started to make tea. Trying not to offend them, we managed to steal Khadra and one of her granddaughters so we could go further away and film in peace. The family wanted to teach us a game and were disappointed that we did not take the time, so they collected a huge bag of sand to take with them as board for the game. The pawns for this would be made out of camel poo, so as darkness set in, we drove to a place where camels are kept, in order to collect... Just at that moment police arrived, wondering what we were doing in the dark, and what this family was doing with two foreigners, stealing camel poo!
Today the kids were back at school. We were told that they would start at 8am, so we arrived at the school gates way before sunrise, and we waited... A little girl appeared with her satchel and waited with us. About an hour later, after wondering if we and the little girl had got it wrong, did the teacher appear as well as hundreds of kids, hurried up by the sound of a whistle. Boys line up on the right side of the gate and girls on the left. Once the school gate swallowed them up into the courtyard, they sang and raised the Sahrawi flag. The space reverted to its usual emptiness. Most of the footage we have reflects this desolation of the landscape and the camp.
Just as we were wondering what to film next, we heard the sound of something metal rolling about, only to see a woman kicking a gas bottle to move it forward. Another one appeared, and another one, and before we knew it, dozens of women were rolling their gas bottles. We followed them. Then we started encountering women coming from the opposite direction. Some of them stopped and chatted. In Sahrawi culture you have to greet everyone in depth, asking for every member of the family, before you can even begin the gossip. We ended up in this large square with hundreds of women exchanging their empty gas bottles for full ones. Once a week, a huge truck brings free gas as humanitarian aid. Also once a week, they queue for other donations, food, clothes, etc... This is the women's ritual of survival.
On our last evening, Khadra's family sacrificed a goat in our honour, also to show the rest of the community that we had become part of the family. The departure was really sad, as we had been so welcome and respected despite our cameras and our idiosyncratic ways. No doubt we'll fuel their conversations and jokes for many months to come. As documentary filmmakers, we record gestures and words, but we keep searching for poetry and symbolism. Here we had the poet – yet we had to search even beyond her symbolic words, in the invisible world of metaphors.