Who speaks For Fetim Salam?

Fetim Salam is a refugee who lives in a remote and inhospitable part of North Africa. She is one of an estimated twelve million refugees worldwide. However, her life is neither obscure nor forgotten. Fetim Salam is represented in two recent documentaries, Stolen (directed by Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw; produced by Violeta Ayala, Dan Fallshaw and Tom Zubrycki) and Robbed of Truth: The Western Sahara Conflict and the Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking (directed and produced by Carlos González)

Stolen, which premiered to great controversy at the 2009 Sydney International Film Festival, claims that Fetim Salam is a slave. The recently released Robbed of Truth challenges and dismisses this assertion in a persuasive and convincing way. At the heart of both films is the question: who speaks for Fetim Salam?

Carlos González’s Robbed of Truth shows that many sequences in Stolen are a fiction. Robbed of Truth provides compelling evidence that Stolen has been incorrectly subtitled, and that faked reconstructions shot in the Sydney beaches of Cronulla and Bondi blend fiction and nonfiction. What we are seeing in Stolen is not a documentary but a tacky B-grade thriller.

Eyewitnesses from the Saharawi refugee camps are interviewed in Robbed of Truth. Cuban doctors recall that Ayala and Fallshaw were not pursued and surrounded by Polisario cars in the dead of night as outlined in Stolen but were chatting with them in the late afternoon when Polisario called.

When Fetim Salam realised that she had been deceived by Ayala and Fallshaw and that the film was no longer the one that she had agreed to, her withdrawal of consent was ignored by Stolen’s producers.

Ayala and Fallshaw argue that exposing Fetim Salam as a slave means that they do not have to consider broader questions of ethics. But ethics is central to Stolen, according to González’s Robbed of Truth, because accusations of slavery were sensationalised and exaggerated.

As Stolen premiered at the Sydney International Film Festival in 2009, Violeta Ayala was interviewed by Matt Peacock on ABC TV’s 7.30 Report. The exchange is worth quoting in full.

Matt Peacock: ‘They’re kept as concubines, raped by the members, they’re not allowed to marry without their master’s consent and you estimate there’s something like 20,000 in the Polisario camps?’

Violeta Ayala: ‘Yes, that’s what they say.’

Fetim Salam, according to Stolen’s producers, is one of these slaves. When asked why they had not accepted Fetim Salam’s rescinding of consent once Salam realised that the original intention of the film had changed, Ayala and Fallshaw state, in their ‘Stolen – FAQ’, ‘We felt improper pressure was applied on her to withdraw and therefore we had a moral right to include the material.’ Stolen purports to speak on behalf of Fetim Salam, who supposedly can not speak for herself as she is a slave in the Polisario-run camps.

Instead of welcoming debate, co-directors Ayala and Fallshaw claim that there has been a campaign to ‘attack’ the credibility of their film and them as filmmakers. They made the assertion repeatedly and insistently via Skype at the Ozdox forum ‘The Western Sahara Conflict and the Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking,’ which I moderated earlier this month in Sydney.

Carlos González had travelled from Los Angeles to present Robbed of Truth in Sydney, hosted by Ozdox, the Australian Documentary Forum, whose Committee members include co-producer of Stolen, Tom Zubrycki. Ayala and Fallshaw were to appear as part of the audience’s ‘question and answer’ session. They had already appeared at an earlier Ozdox session dedicated to their film, which González was not invited to attend.

However, it quickly became apparent that the refusal of Ayala and Fallshaw to abide by any of this forum’s rules could only mean one thing: while they claimed they were speaking on behalf of Fetim Salam, they were really only speaking on behalf of themselves.

Two comments Ayala and Fallshaw made at the forum were particularly instructive. ‘When we went to the refugee camp to make a film about a family reunion,’ Ayala said, ‘what we discovered and what we believed was that slavery existed.’ Later on Fallshaw added: ‘The Human Rights Watch report published in 2008 said that slavery exists in the camps.’

Both these comments are incorrect. The Human Rights Watch report, for example, said that ‘vestiges’ of slavery remained; according to González, they only relate to permission to marry. ‘I interviewed a Black Saharawi woman, who Human Rights Watch also interviewed; she said the old, old owner of her family came and he didn’t want to give permission for her daughter to marry and she went to the Polisario and they solved the issue,’ González concluded. In Robbed of Truth, Yarba Maaloun Moulod, the tank Commander for the Second Region, agrees with the HRW findings: ‘I personally don’t deny that there are remnants of slavery in Saharawan society which is an underdeveloped society.’

During the first screenings of Stolen at the Sydney and Melbourne International Film Festivals in 2009, I had other irrevocable and pressing commitments so could not participate in the debate. I was neither involved in the production nor editing of Stolen nor Robbed of Truth, and, prior to the distribution of these films, I had never met Ayala, Fallshaw or González. As Zubrycki is a prominent member of the Australian documentary sector, I had talked with him at conferences.

Let me very briefly deal with the criticisms that have been levelled at me. Documentary filmmaker Bob Connolly has falsely written online that I am unprofessional or even unethical. This is because during the forum I quoted from a Screen Hub article about comments that Tom Zubrycki made at the Australian International Documentary Conference in 2010. Unfortunately, the article had been incorrectly transcribed and published; the fault lies with Screen Hub and not me.

Earlier, Connolly had written a vituperate letter which was distributed to the audience as they were entering the cinema before The Robbed of Truth screening on 11 July 2012. The missive was titled: ‘STOLEN vs ROBBED OF TRUTH: OPEN LETTER TO THE BOARD OF THE AUSTRALIAN DIRECTORS GUILD FROM BOB CONNOLLY’. Two days later Connolly made an online pronouncement about the event: ‘it was both unprofessional and unethical.’ Connolly had not attended the forum.

I request an apology from Connolly. If Connolly feels so passionately about Stolen, having gone to a fine-cut screening of the film and making ‘structural suggestions’ and considering Zubrycki as ‘a longtime friend,’ according to his letter, I would encourage him to organise a session on Stolen and Robbed of Truth at the Australian Director’s Guild, where Connolly is a Board member. I would be more than happy to debate with him.

There are also larger issues at play here. Ozdox Committee member Mandy King has written about how ‘enormous pressure can potentially be brought to bear upon people who step out of line’ in the coordinating of the event. When González was interviewed on ABC Radio’s PM he said, ‘You know, there’s a very important producer in Australia that produced this film and you know I’m kind of rocking the (documentary) establishment and they just don’t like that here.’

González, the first independent filmmaker ever to film in the Moroccan occupied territories in 2006 and one of the original cameramen on Stolen, returned to the Saharawi camps in Algeria, retracing the steps of Stolen’s filmmakers. He spent three weeks with Fetim Salam and her family filming Robbed of Truth.

Why do I believe that Robbed of Truth should be closely examined and discussed in a thorough and serious manner? Why do I write that the film shines a light on a dark corner of Australian documentary? Because González is speaking for Fetim Salam, one of the twelve million – usually voiceless – refugees. Robbed of Truth defends a woman and a refugee who has been seriously misrepresented. If we choose to ignore, belittle or shut down debate on Robbed of Truth, it diminishes us as filmmakers and, most importantly, as human beings.

Carmela Baranowska

Carmela Baranowska has been working on human rights for nearly twenty years. She has written about, filmed, lived and worked in East Timor, Burma, Afghanistan, West Papua and Indonesia. She is currently researching and writing on the relationship between human rights, conflict and media for her PhD at the University of Melbourne.

More by Carmela Baranowska ›

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  1. Carmela Gonzalez is not rocking the documentary establishment by screening his film and there is no conspiracy to silence him as is suggested in the above article. I was part of the ozdox committee that made the decision to screen “Robbed of Truth” and we were very keen to do so because of the ethical concerns it raises for documentary makers. If we wanted to silence Gonzalez we wouldn’t have agreed to screen it or have paid your airfare from Melbourne so that you could moderate the discussion. However, as “Robbed of Truth” is specifically aimed at Stolen and trashes the reputations and work of 2 filmmakers we felt that it was only fair that they be given the right of reply at the screening. No more no less.

  2. Dear Ruth Cullen,

    In order to broaden the discussion I have written these questions:

    Did you attend the Ozdox forum on July 11, 2012?

    Have you seen the film?

    What do you mean by: ‘as “Robbed of Truth” … trashes the reputations and work of 2 filmmakers…’

    Are you writing these comments in a personal capacity or on behalf of the Ozdox Committee?

    As you are also a Board member at the Australian Director’s Guild are you interested in promoting further debate amongst ADG members about Stolen and Robbed of Truth as outlined in the above article?

    Thanks for your time,

    Yours sincerely,
    Carmela Baranowska

  3. RESPONSE to Carmela,

    I feel I need, in the interests of reader’s access to a more balanced story, to take up several points that Carmela Baranowska has raised.

    Part of the strategy deployed in the orchestrated attempt to discredit Stolen has been its appeal to the disciplines of current affairs journalism in condemning the film – and thereby delegitimizing its editorial integrity. Robbed of Truth is sadly neither good journalism, nor documentary; it is contorted by polemic. What Stolen does like any good documentary is open up and question. Robbed of Truth is completely one-sided. It sets out to demolish Stolen rather than engaging with the issues. The result is a tunnel vision that elides the actual concrete historical material that it purports to be primarily concerned with. Why, for instance is the author of the Human Rights Watch Report into the Tindouf camps that also raises the issue of slavery never interviewed or the report even mentioned in Robbed of Truth? This was, after all, the NGO with the most up to date, independent research: Human Rights Watch. HRW came to the camps – the year after the Stolen filmmakers; they also found that slavery existed.

    It’s been 3 years since Stolen was made. In the documentary a number of camp residents discussed slavery and said that slavery existed in the camps. Some even identified themselves as slaves. Yet as soon as the film was released these revelations were denied by the Polisario who run the camps, and a smear campaign started against the filmmakers which continues to the present day.

    When Human Rights Watch visited the Tindouf camps they conducted interviews with black residents of the camps as well as Polisario officials:
    The findings confirmed exactly what the filmmakers had earlier revealed:
    “Responding to questions about slavery, the Polisario has acknowledged the survival, “to a limited extent, of certain practices related to antiquated thinking” and said it was “determined to combat and eradicate them whenever they emerge and no matter what shape they take.” We welcome this statement and urge the Polisario to be vigilant in pursuing this objective. (HRW Report 2008, P30)

    In Robbed of Truth, one worker actually confirms the above statement and also what the filmmakers had discovered. Yarba Maaloun Moulod, the tank Commander says: ‘I personally don’t deny that there are remnants of slavery in Saharawan society which is an underdeveloped society.’
    Robbed of Truth, as if to excuse this one admission, then spends much time interviewing camp workers, most of whom are white Europeans who earn their living from working in the camps, who deny they have ever seen slavery and go to great lengths in order to discredit what they allege Stolen to claim, that ‘widespread’ slavery exists in the Tindouf camps. Stolen never makes these claims. Instead it presents the stories of a group of Saharawis living in the camps who believe slavery still affects their lives, and some of them claim to be slaves to this day. One of the characters in Stolen, Matala, says, “There are 20,000 people like me. They are afraid to speak out.” This is Matala’s point of view. He doesn’t specify whether these people like him are all in the camps, in Algeria, or in the region of Western Sahara. He could even be suggesting neighbouring regions of Mauritania where slavery is well documented. As Human Rights Watch, slavery expert Dr Kevin Bales and Anti-Slavery International all claim, more investigation is needed into the practice of slavery in this region.

    So what is slavery, and how is it expressed in the Tindouf camps? The filmmakers interviewed a number of people in the camps about slavery, and it’s not the ball and chain variety that some people might commonly think it is. It’s far subtler than that, but no less dehumanising. The black people in the camps describe slavery as: having no rights over their children, being the sexual property of the master, not being allowed to decide whom you marry, having a slave name and bearing the master’s surname, and working or doing household duties without payment.

    According to Baranowska, Fetim, the central character of Stolen is misrepresented because she is called a slave. The film never claims Fetim Salam is a slave. Fetim is portrayed as a mother, a teacher but also a woman searching for her own identity and her real family. During the course of filming, Fetim and her daughter Leil disclose to the filmmakers that slavery still affects their lives. The reason Fetim and her mother were separated, we learn, is a result of slavery. Deido (Fetim’s ‘white mother’) was good to Fetim because she didn’t sell her. “I liberated Fetim”, she says in Stolen. Can we believe her or not?

    “It was then that things started to make sense: Fetim described Deido as her ‘white stepmother’; Deido hadn’t registered Fetim (as she’d been told by Deido) for the family reunion program; Fetim bears Deido’s family name; Fetim was doing the domestic work for Deido and wasn’t paid for her work; Fetim gave the money she earned as a teacher to Deido.”
    (The filmmakers FAQ)

    Stolen leaves it up to the audience to draw their own conclusion.

    In sum, credible sources testified to Human Rights Watch about vestiges of slavery that continue to affect the lives of a portion of the black minority in the Tindouf camps. The practices involve historical ties between families that involve certain rights and obligations that are not always clear. (HRW report 2008, p 151)

    Neither the filmmakers or I were surprised when Fetim arrived in Sydney to coincide with the premiere of Stolen at the Sydney Film Festival. After all, the easiest way for the Polisario to discredit the film was to bring Fetim to Australia and have her say she isn’t a slave and that slavery doesn’t exist. The Polisario paid for Fetim’s visit to Australia.

    Romana Cacchioli, from Anti-slavery International, who works in North Africa, after viewing Stolen made the point: “Slavery is a sensitive and particularly thorny issue for states… She said: It is also a common practice for states to put pressure on victims to retract their statements.”

    Putting aside the question of whether Fetim is a slave or not, in Stolen a number of residents in the camps talk openly about slavery. In Robbed of Truth, several of our interviewees are seen to repudiate their statements. One of them has since told Stolen’s filmmakers that they were put in jail before being forced to recant. However, not all the interviewees who talked about slavery ‘confessed to being wrong’. A significant number were not prepared to retract their statements.

    The filmmakers, shocked by these revelations, then (mistakenly, as it tuned-out) went to the Polisario officials and asked them questions about what they had discovered. Shortly afterwards the filmmakers decided it was necessary to hide their recorded tapes and they were subsequently detained and ordered to hand over the tapes to the Polisario, which they refused to do. When the UN came to investigate what was happening the Polisario refused to let the filmmakers leave the camps. It was only after several hours of tense negotiation between the UN and the Algerian Government that the filmmakers where taken out of the camps by UN military officers.

    Should they have left quietly, handed their tapes to the officials and pretended what they had been alerted to, what they had learned didn’t exist? Was that the moral and ethical thing to do?

    “As soon as we learned slavery was still practiced in a refugee camp monitored by the UN we knew we had an obligation to tell the world. It wasn’t just a moral obligation on our part, it was a direct request of the people we met and talked to about slavery.”(Filmmakers FAQ)

    From my experience, it is often the case that in making a documentary the film that one sets out to make is not always what eventually gets made. Filmmakers have to trust their instincts, and the world they encounter, and go where the story takes them. In the case of Stolen clearly the subject of the film had changed – slavery had become a central issue, eclipsing the original intention to document an historical re-union between refugees in the camps and their relatives across the tightly police border. The filmmakers could have ignored it, but that would have meant turning their backs on the people who trusted them with their stories. Instead they saw as their moral obligation to reveal what was actually happening in the camps and not to suppress it, especially given an absence of freedom of speech within the Tindouf camps themselves.

    The Polisario Front monopolizes political speech and marginalizes those who directly call into question its continued leadership or oppose it on fundamental issues. (HRW report 2008, page 9)
    Returning to the campaign against Stolen, the recent polemic Robbed of Truth falls short with a number of totally unsubstantiated claims.

    1. The allegation of incorrect translations in Stolen.
    This is a familiar reproach. The sub-titles were forensically checked by a NAATI accredited interpreter in Australia (before the Melbourne Film Festival screening in 2009 – the second public screening of the film) and subsequently by other native Hassaniya interpreters from several independent organisations in Australia and overseas. It’s worth noting that more than seventy per cent of the discussions about slavery are in Spanish, with the remainder being in Hassaniya. The issue of slavery was raised with the filmmakers in Spanish over many conversations. That’s how they became aware of it.

    2. Stolen has also been criticised for its re-enactment, which it is said diminishes the veracity of the film.
    ‘Re-enactments’ are a commonplace technique in documentary. There are a variety of aesthetic conventions commonly deployed; of course care must be taken around the clear boundary between fabrication and illustration to ensure the integrity of story-telling. This is documentary filmmaking 10, and I believe it is not an issue with this film.
    3. Payment for interviews.

    This is a completely mischievous allegation. Nobody was paid for interviews. Those who chose to speak to the filmmakers about slavery did so of the own free will and their desire for the world to hear their voices.

    4. Fetim wrote a letter asking to be removed from the film. Her request was ignored.

    Fetim, in the first place gave approval to be filmed on camera during the first interview recorded with her, which is clearly evidenced by her participation in the filming process and no conditions were applied by either Fetim or the Polisario. We do believe that pressure was applied for Fetim to withdraw and to turn against the filmmakers. This is documented in the film. The amount of control the Polisario places over residents in the Camps is often referenced in the HRW Report (e.g. the quote previously cited).

    In conclusion, to my mind the filmmakers have accurately represented the people whose stories they aired in the documentary. They stumbled on aspects of slavery in the camps; they found that black-skinned residents in the camps were victims of on-going traditional practices of slavery.

    The film like all the best documentaries tells an important story, opens questions and gives voice to people who want to speak out.

    In the case of the ‘controversy’ around Stolen one wonders ‘who is the enemy here?’ When you consider the degree of difficulty facing any genuinely committed documentary in Australia today, the energy invested in this particular polemic seems perhaps a little misguided; there are fundamental social, political and policy concerns that unite us. We need to attend to these.

    Tom Zubrycki, co-producer Stolen

    1. How much profit did mr. Zubrycki, co-producer of Stolen, make with the film? Or did he do it for free? I don’t think so. Fetim cooperated for free, and when she withdrew her consent for the exploitation of her images, she is simply ignored by mr. Zubrycki, co-producer of Stolen. How much did he make? Too little to share some with Fetim, obviously.

      Zubrycki & co made a propaganda film to serve Moroccan interests. It is naive to ignore the influence of that foreign state with its aggressive foreign agenda. Fetim is abused by Australian filmmakers just as Australian cinema is abused by the Moroccan DGED.

      Now any non-Australian journalist could come up with an additional question: is there some relation with the shipping of phosphate from Western Sahara to Australia? That is a multi million dollar business I’m told, one that could indicate some additional interests of mr. Zubrycki and explain his ignorance of Fetim’s request.


    Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the Ozdox screening of Robbed of Truth on 11 July as I was away at the time. However, I have since seen the film, and had attended the Ozdox screening of Stolen when it was shown back in 2009.

    I’d like to comment on the email from Bob Connolly which was handed out at the screening of Robbed of Truth.

    I feel Bob goes over the top in his attack on the Polisario. Bob cites the 2008 Human Rights Watch Report Human Rights in Western Sahara and the Tindouf Refugee Camps as concluding ‘that a form of slavery did indeed exist among a minority of families in the Polisario controlled camps’. On my reading, pretty much all the 2008 HRW report says about slavery in the Tindouf camps is that ‘residual’ slavery practices continue to affect ‘some’ black residents, with blacks themselves saying that

    the issue of slavery in the camps today concerns one practice in particular: the refusal by some [my emphasis] local personal-status judges (qadi’s) to perform the act of marriage for black women informally designated as “slaves” unless their “owners” give their consent.

    Hardly what readers would take from Bob’s summary, is it? Or from Stolen, for that matter.

    Then, I’ve looked at HRW’s 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 reports as well as the 2008 one. There’s no mention of slavery in Tindouf at all. It appears it was a one-year wonder in 2008. Strange that HRW would only worry about such an important thing for just one year, which happens to be the year after the allegations in Stolen. In fact, it looks to me as though a major purpose of the 2008 report was to clarify the situation in response to the claims made in Stolen, and the report in the end rebuts these claims as much as, or more than, it substantiates them.

    Bob describes himself as an ‘admirer’ of Polisario, but has no issue with Stolen’s fabrication of evidence, misrepresentation of testimonies, misleading simulation of a contested incident, and most importantly complete insensitivity to the major human rights violations besetting the Sahrawi people — not by Polisario but as a result of Morocco’s invasion and subsequent decades of displacement and oppression in the occupied territory of Western Sahara.

    Not only that, but Bob comes out swinging at anybody seeking to draw attention to the serious deficiencies in Stolen or even have a discussion about them — in his worldview, the organisers of the 11 July session are conducting a ‘witch-hunt’ and exercising ‘Orwellian truth control’; the maker of Robbed of Truth has performed an ‘orchestrated hatchet job’; Carmela Baranowska lacks ‘objectivity’ for no other reason than that she’s positive about Robbed of Truth; and all of them together are engaging in nothing more than ‘character assassination’ on a ‘couple of wandering doco filmmakers’ who Bob thought (the ‘deeply sceptical’ attitude he has towards the Polisario apparently suspended for the moment) ‘decent people’ when he worked on the film with them. Bob’s concerned that Ayala and Hallshaw’s careers might be ‘ruined’, but doesn’t appear to care about the damage the exaggerations in Stolen have undoubtedly done to the cause of the Sahrawi people.

    Just how ‘objective’ is Bob Connolly on this issue? Just how much understanding does he have about human rights issues? Just how concerned is he about integrity in documentary film-making?

    Russ Hermann

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