Category: Media & Marketing

FiSahara – The world’s most remote film festival

As the great and the good of the world’s film industry prepared to descend on Cannes last week, a very different film festival was coming to a climax deep in the Sahara desert. Far from the red-carpeted Mediterranean opulence of the Croisette, the Sahara International Film Festival – known as FiSahara – took place in a sun-baked refugee camp deep in the Algerian desert. What it may have lacked in glittering VIP premieres and champagne-fuelled yacht parties, FiSahara made up for in spades with dune parties, camel races and multiplex-sized screenings beneath the stars.

Now in its 11th year, the FiSahara film festival attracted over 300 international actors, screenwriters and cinephiles, alongside thousands of Saharawi refugees exiled from their native Western Sahara for nearly four decades. Festival guests flew by chartered plane to the remote desert outpost of Tindouf where they boarded a convoy of buses and 4x4s and drove the dusty 100m to Dakhla refugee camp, in an area known locally as the Devil’s Garden.

The Sahara International Film Festival. (Carlos Cazurro)
The Sahara International Film Festival. (Carlos Cazurro)

There they were met by refugee families, with whom they lived for five days, sleeping in their stucco-and-tented homes and sharing their simple couscous meals and copious glasses of sweet tea. With midday temperatures topping 100 degrees, most activities were scheduled for mornings and late afternoons with screenings taking place after dusk, in makeshift cinemas or projected onto a giant screen attached to the side of an articulated lorry.

Experience of Saharawi students
The festival programme included over 30 films from around the world including documentaries, animations, short films and blockbusters as well as several made by refugees themselves in the newly established refugee camp film school. While some films such as the Oscar-nominated Egyptian film The Square, reflected stories of hope and struggle, others were purely intended to entertain offering the refugees a glimpse of what lies beyond their desiccated desert horizons.

“The cartoon about the boy who plays table football was so funny,” said 12-year old Liman Mohamed referring to the Argentinian 3-D comedy-animation Foosball by Oscar-winning director Juan Jose Campanella, which had filled the desert night with laughter.

The documentary Raíces y Clamor (Roots and Noise), which premiered at the festival explores the heart-wrenching experience of the Saharawi students who move to Spain to get an education. Fati Khadad, a 27-year-old Masters student who appears in the film was at the festival and explained how she was “adopted” by a Spanish family aged 10.

“I am slowly coming to terms with life in exile” she tells me. “Some people say I am lucky to have escaped the refugee camp and got an education but the reality is that I have spent my life apart from the people I love. We all suffer whether in the camps, whether in the occupied territories or whether in exile.”

The festival’s first prize – an actual white camel – was awarded to Legna, an evocative documentary about the traditions of Saharawi poetry. Second prize went to Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, screened as part of this years’ festival tribute to Nelson Mandela. The third prize for the documentary Dirty Wars was collected by the film’s scriptwriter, David Riker who also led a screenwriting workshop for refugee filmmakers.

“I have taught similar workshops for many years in many parts of the world, but I have never had such an exceptional group of students,” Riker said. “I think the reason is simply this – that the Saharawis have an overwhelming need to tell their stories.”

Cultural activities
As well as films and workshops the festival also offered cultural activities, children’s activities led by a team of clowns and evening concerts by renowned world music star Mariem Hassan and legendary musician Jonas Mosa Gwangwa who flew in from South Africa with his nine-piece band.

Gwangwa, who wrote the Oscar-nominated score for Richard David Attenbough’s Cry Freedom, was just one of large South African delegation invited as part of the festival’s tribute to Nelson Mandela. “Culture can replace the gun. It can be much more powerful,” Gwanga told an audience at a roundtable discussion which also included 88-year-old iconic anti-apartheid fighter Andrew Mlangeni, imprisoned with Nelson Mandela for 26 years. Together with Gwangwa, Mlangeni drew parallels with the Saharawi struggle for self-determination and South Africa’s own liberation struggle and highlighted the importance of culture as a weapon in freedom struggle.

“The South African experience is very inspiring and holds many lessons for the Saharawi,” said Jadiya Hamdi, the Saharawi government in exile’s minister of culture. “Creating our own film culture is important in the nation-building process because culture can carry an audience far beyond any political speech.

“The atmosphere in the camp during the week of the film festival is fantastic,” 70-year-old Abaya Ambarak Asalak says despite not having seen any films herself. “Why should I sit on the sand at watch a film when my life has been like a film?” she asks. Abaya has lived in the refugee camp since 1976 after fleeing Western Sahara ahead of the advancing Moroccan troops. “One night a plane dropped bombs from the sky,” she says describing a napalm attack that killed her young son and daughter. “The scars on my body may have faded but the wounds in my heart are still raw.”

And it is stories like these that David Riker feels need to be told. “Film can serve the Saharawi struggle both in helping to express a collective reflection on their circumstances, and by bring their unique story to the world” he says. “Unlike most things planted in the desert, the FiSahara film festival has taken root and continues to grow and flourish” actor said Javier Bardem ahead of this year’s festival. “It is increasingly attracting great films and great film-makers from around the world and in doing it sends a signal to our political leaders that this crisis that can no-longer be ignored and a signal to the Saharawi refugees that despite their isolation, they have not been forgotten.

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and the international co-ordinator of FiSahara. This post was first published on the Mail & Guardian Online. 

‘When Women Speak’: Exploring Kenyan feminisms


Fungai Machirori interviews Brenda Wambui and Michael Onsando, co-founders of the Kenyan thought leadership platform Brainstorm. They recently launched a quarterly online journal with the first edition titled ‘When Women Speak’.

Can you briefly tell me when and how the idea of this journal came about and why you chose feminism as your first topic?

Brenda Wambui (BW): We had been toying with the idea of a quarterly supplement/e-book since late last year. Having published an essay a week on the Brainstorm site for six months, it felt natural as we wanted to expand our content offering and create bodies of work around issues we feel are important to the Kenyan existence.

Also, we had been getting pulled into discussions that revolved around feminism frequently and realised that there were a lot of misconceptions about feminism. So feminism was at the top of both our heads.

The articles in the journal are quite in-depth. And furthermore, the journal is distributed online. Some might argue you are preaching to the converted.

BW: You would be surprised to learn that even online, we have several people who wake up each day and disparage women just for the hell of it. People still mock and bully feminists online for having the courage to speak out. These people, too, need to see what we have written. It is easy to think that just because people are online and have internet access, they will not be sexist because they have easy access to information that can change this, but this is not the case.

About the articles being in depth; that is why we decided to do this on a quarterly basis as opposed to monthly. People can take their time to read and re-read the e-book, as the next one only comes out in three months.

Michael Onsando (MO): We really tried to keep the language simple and to the point. We hope to reach the people who still think feminism is out of reach of the ordinary citizen.

How freely do Kenyan women identify as feminists?

BW: It used to be that being a feminist was a bad thing, because as the stereotype goes, feminists are ugly and angry because no man wants them. However, with the rise of the internet, and especially social media like Facebook and Twitter, women who identify as feminists have been able to articulate what we are fighting for, which is equal rights and equal opportunities for women and men. With this increased understanding, more and more women are willing to identify as feminists.

And how freely do Kenyan men identify as feminists?

MO: Not many men identify as feminist. The feminist has been painted as a bitter single woman. Therefore, identifying as feminist creates a situation where one’s masculinity is called into question; I know mine has. And even the men who would be feminists don’t like the word, as if it is dirty and as if using it will somehow kill them. This is not to say that there are no Kenyan men that identify as feminist. They exist, and I feel dearly for them. But those against vastly outnumber those for.

There’s a poignant thought in one of the pieces: “I don’t know if our mothers think their sons are not the boys … that will hurt women. If they do, I don’t know if their fear that their daughters might be raped is equal to the fear that their sons may one day rape.” From a Kenyan perspective, what do you attribute this to?

MO: There is a lot to be said about nurture. There is a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude here. As if, from birth, the male child has been given up on. Of course, it falls back to the patriarchal nature of society. The man will continue to be allowed to do as he wills while the woman submits. This is what we are taught. This is what we learn.

And then there’s the rapist. The rapist is constructed as a faraway mythical creature that is easily identifiable by how he walks talks, smells and acts. No one dares imagine that the rapist could be well-groomed, eloquent and middle class. Yet, more often than not, he is.

BW: Women are usually the ones who are warned against many things. Almost all parents will warn their daughters against being out at night, wearing short or tight clothes, getting pregnant at an early age and instruct them to wait for sex within marriage. Yet they rarely ask themselves who is going to harm or impregnate their daughters. Is it not young men like their sons? Parents believe that their sons are not the ones raping or harassing girls; but the statistics say otherwise.

You say you seek to redefine Kenyan feminisms. However, the language of feminism remains embedded in historical and emerging American feminist rhetoric – rape culture, privilege, intersectionality, self-care – much of which is to be found in ‘When Women Speak’. Can you redefine feminism without redefining its accompanying language?

BW: I feel that there are only so many words we can invent to describe something – feminism over the years has done a great job of hashing out language and terminology, and describing what is problematic and what is not. The language used by feminists, in my opinion, is okay. What we need to do now is to contextualise the conversations to Kenya, and Africa. When you read about rape culture in New York, you may become wiser but still unable to apply it to your own existence.

MO: The thing is, we speak a western language. It is almost impossible to find ‘Africanness’ within English. And even if we manage, somehow westernisation will creep in. I think this is why a lot of African feminists struggle with language. There is something about finding one’s tongue within a language that doesn’t fully accommodate your existence that is very frustrating.

Is there space in today’s world to not identify as feminist, but yet embrace its ideals?

BW: I encounter this argument a lot and it saddens me because many people want equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women, but do not want to be identified as feminists, probably due to misinformation and negative stereotypes. That is why we sought to (re)define feminism in our e-book. Perhaps once people are well informed about what feminism hopes to achieve, they will more easily identify with it.

MO: I think the idea of identity these days is used to skirt around many issues and to alienate others. There are presumptions that come about with identity and that’s why many people chose to, or not to, identify as many things – particularly as feminists. What’s more important to me is what you stand for. If you’re standing on the side that fights for justice then, I find, I hardly care what you decide to identify as.

‘When Women Speak’ is available for free download at

Fungai Machirori is a blogger, editor, poet and researcher. She runs Zimbabwe’s first web-based platform for womenHer Zimbabweand is an advocate for using social media for consciousness-building among Zimbabweans. Connect with her on Twitter

Africa’s top tweeting cities revealed

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

Johannesburg was the most active Twitter city in Africa in the last three months of 2013, according to a new study called How Africa Tweets.

The city had 344 215 geo-located tweets, followed by Ekurhuleni with 264 172, and the Egyptian capital Cairo with 227 509, communications agency Portland said in a statement on Wednesday.

Durban followed with 163 019 tweets and Alexandria, also in Egypt, was closely behind with 159 534 tweets.

The study by Portland also found that cities in South Africa and Egypt were the most active on Twitter.

Twitter activity in Africa peaked on the day former South African president Nelson Mandela died.

“The day of Nelson Mandela’s death – 5 December – saw the highest volume of geo-located tweets in Africa,” it said.

The study also found that English, French, and Arabic were the most common languages on Twitter in Africa, accounting for 75.5% of the total tweets analysed. Zulu, Swahili, Afrikaans, Xhosa, and Portuguese were the next most commonly tweeted languages in Africa.

Tuesdays and Fridays were the most active tweeting days.

“Twitter activity rises steadily through the afternoon and evening, with peak volumes around 9pm,” it said.

It also found that soccer was the most-discussed topic on Twitter in Africa.

“[Soccer] was discussed more than any other topic, including the death of Nelson Mandela. The most mentioned [soccer] team was Johannesburg’s Orlando Pirates.”

Politically-related hashtags were less common.

Allan Kamau, head of Portland Nairobi, said the African “twittersphere” was transforming the way that Africa communicated with itself and the rest of the world.

“Our latest research reveals a significantly more sophisticated landscape than we saw just two years ago,” he said.

“This is opening up new opportunities and challenges for companies, campaigning organisations, and governments across Africa,” he said.

Lupita Nyong’o: The Kenyan star who stunned Hollywood

Lupita Nyong’o, winner of the best supporting actress Oscar on Sunday, stunned Hollywood in her big-screen debut with her searing turn as an abused servant in 12 Years A Slave.

The Kenyan actress and Yale School of Drama graduate, who turned 31 on Saturday, has risen in a year from relative obscurity to Hollywood’s A list, winning plaudits for both her efforts on screen and her impeccable fashion sense.

Nyong’o has already picked up the Screen Actors Guild and Critics’ Choice awards for best supporting actress for her turn as Patsey, a slave brutalised by her sadistic owner, played by Michael Fassbender.

Lupita Nyong'o accepts her Oscar. (Pic: AFP)
Lupita Nyong’o accepts her Oscar. (Pic: AFP)

“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” a tearful Nyong’o said Sunday upon accepting her award, after receiving a standing ovation from the audience.

“When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”

12 Years a Slave, by British director Steve McQueen – won the coveted best picture Oscar, beating eight fellow nominees –  American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Unusual career choice
Born in Mexico – the source of her Spanish name, and where her father was teaching political science at university – Nyong’o grew up in Kenya as the second of six children.

Acting is hardly a common career in Kenya for the child of a powerful politician, but her father, one-time health minister Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, said the family had always supported her dreams.

“She started acting very young, right from kindergarten, and even at home with just the family, she would come up with make-believe stories and perform them for us,” he told Kenya’s East African newspaper.

“She was always imaginative and creative.”

The career of Nyong’o – who now lives in the United States after studying at Hampshire College in Massachusetts and later at Yale – has been avidly followed by the media in her home nation, who remember her first major role on a television show.

She was inspired to follow an acting career after working as a production assistant on the 2005 drama “The Constant Gardener.” Actor Ralph Fiennes then told her only to get into acting if she couldn’t live without it.

“It’s not what I wanted to hear, but it’s what I needed to hear,” she told Arise Entertainment in a recent interview.

First time lucky
She struck gold with her first major role in 12 Years a Slave – a role she says she almost did not get because director Steve McQueen thought she “might be too pretty.”

Critics have hailed her turn in Patsey, which included some very difficult scenes, including one in which she is viciously whipped while tied to a pole.

“Acting is an exercise of deep trust in yourself and an exercise in letting go: Do [all of your preparation] and then trust that when the [filming] day comes, and you’re in the room with Michael Fassbender, what you need will come through,” she told Entertainment Weekly.

Nyong’o – who is now appearing in the thriller Non-Stop, starring Liam Neeson – faced many challenges at the start of her career.

“She told me there were already actors and actresses in the US, and the odds were against her. Her dark skin tone, her short hair, her Kenyan accent, her name,” recalls Kenyan actor Antony Mwangi, who worked with her in Nairobi.

Ahead of her triumph on Sunday night, Nyong’o said she hoped to inspire a new generation of black actresses.

“In many ways, me being on the scene is doing for little girls everywhere what Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg did for me,” she told Entertainment Weekly.

“My world exploded by them being on screen. Hopefully I will inspire and be meaningful to other people. But I can’t take on other people’s dreams for me. I can only dream for myself.”

Egypt’s first Oscar-nominated film not shown at home

Directors of Egypt’s first Oscar-nominated film will be walking the red carpet at the Oscars ceremony this weekend in Los Angeles, but most Egyptians have yet to see the hard-hitting movie that chronicles the country’s unrest over the past three years.

Far from being widely celebrated in Egypt, the film has not been shown at Egyptian film festivals or theaters after running into problems with censorship authorities. The filmmakers say they have been blocked because of their portrayal of the country’s military-backed governments. They still hope to get approval for wider distribution.

“It’s a kind of politics disguised in bureaucracy,” said Karim Amer, the film’s producer, taking a line that one of the film’s central character uses to describe the government’s counter-revolutionary actions.

The Square, named for Tahrir, or Liberty Square, is built around the geographic focal point of the uprising, where millions of Egyptians gathered to protest Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the rule of the generals who succeeded him and now-deposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. It recounts the country’s recent turmoil, beginning when Mubarak stepped down in 2011 through August 2013, right before security forces stormed two protest camps of Morsi supporters, killing hundreds.


The filmmakers tell the story through the eyes of three protesters hailing from different backgrounds. The self-described revolutionaries are Ahmed Hassan, a streetwise idealist; Khalid Abdalla, a British-Egyptian Hollywood actor raised abroad by his exiled activist father; and Magdy Ashour, a member of Morsi’s Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed and labeled a terrorist organization by the government installed by the military.

The movie follows their ideological trajectories, from hope and exuberance to disappointment and disillusion.

Ashour grows apart from the Brotherhood. He goes to protest in the square even after the group has prohibited members from demonstrating because, he says, the demands of the revolution have still not been met by the country’s interim leaders. Abdalla struggles to convince his exiled father that his activism will bear fruit, and Hassan suffers a head injury while throwing rocks at security forces and falls into a depression.

“The good and free people are being called agents and traitors, and the agents and traitors are being called heroes,” Hassan narrates over scenes of ambulances carrying away wounded protesters.

The film’s director, Jehane Noujaim, who grew up in Egypt, said she wanted to tell the story in a way that would let viewers in 50 or 100 years feel “that energy and that spirit of being in the square.”

Depiction of the military
The footage includes graphic images of bloodied bodies getting smashed by military vehicles, police dragging a protester’s limp body across the street and other scenes of brutality. At one point, a protester kneels on the sidewalk, weeping, with the blood of comrades on his hands.

“Our army is killing us. They are killing us,” the protester says. “They’ve forgotten Egypt.”

That depiction of the Egyptian military, which removed Morsi in July, is the reason the filmmakers believe the film has not been licensed for showing in Egypt.

But the project has gained acclaim in the West, winning audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival and at Toronto and Montreal festivals. It was acquired last year by subscription service Netflix.

In Egypt, it’s only available through YouTube and illegal downloads. After the academy announced the Oscar nominations, the film was hacked and released on the Internet. Amer estimates that more than 1.5 million people have watched it online.

“What’s been fantastic is to see the overwhelming ability of the internet to show truth from fiction,” he said.

Censorship authorities
Ahmed Awad, undersecretary to the Minister of Culture and head of censorship, told The Associated Press that the film has not been banned in Egypt for any political reasons. He said it was not shown because the film’s producers did not file the proper paperwork. He called the filmmakers’ accusations of repression “propaganda” designed to attract more attention.

“I am very happy about the Oscars, because it’s a very high level of art,” Awad said. “We are not against the film, but there are laws. I can’t make exceptions.”

Noujaim said that the team submitted the film to censorship authorities in September and received verbal permission to show it at a festival. But, she explained, the film never received an official letter to that effect, and the filmmakers did not feel comfortable proceeding without a formal permit given the tense political climate. She said they are appealing and submitting additional paperwork.

Some Egyptians who have seen the film say it is designed more for educating a Western audience than interpreting the country’s recent history, that it glosses over some events and does not capture the nuance of post-revolutionary politics.

Joe Fahim, an Egyptian film curator and critic, said the film is not an artistic masterpiece, but he believes it’s an important film for Egyptian audiences because it can serve as a record of the country’s political upheaval.

“It’s a reminder of the turbulent history of the past three years,” Fahim said.

Noujaim, who last month received a Directors Guild documentary award for The Square, said the film is ultimately an ode to the activists who made the revolution happen.

“That’s the only thing that’s ever worked – a dedicated few that stick to their principles, stick to every battle, and once in a while, they’re able to inspire the majority,” she said.

Despite the setbacks, Amer added, what’s fundamentally changed in Egypt is that “the young Egyptian voice that’s been born in that square is unwilling to give up, and I think that’s what our film chronicles and shows.” – Sapa-AP