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.