With the film "Stolen" scheduled to make an appearance at the Melbourne International Film Festival in July, clearly the MIFF organisers, Screen Australia and the federal government need to make some decisions on just what passes for reality and, on just what is considered ethically acceptable in taxpayer-funded artistic output.
The controversy surrounding the film, "Stolen" has focussed, rightly, on the spurious claims to widespread slavery in the Western Sahara refugee camps made by the film-makers. But, the film-makers have not acted alone and this tawdry process has not been done in isolation. Some $300,000 from Screen Australia, a federal government-funded body, helped ensure the film's completion. It's involvement raises serious questions about how arts funding money is used and about whether this film is an appropriate cultural ambassador for this country.
The film purports to expose widespread race-based slavery in refugee camps along the Morocco-Algeria border. These camps have existed for more than 3 decades as a result of Morocco's illegal invasion of Western Sahara in 1975. Since then, the indigenous Western Saharans, known as Saharawis, have eked out an existence in an international limbo, as the United Nations-backed referendum on independence has been put on hold indefinitely due to the Moroccan monarchy's serpentine political manoeuvres.
The Saharawis under the leadership of the Polisario independence movement have achieved a great deal. Within their camps they have a democratically elected parliament and government camp-based councils and various trade unions. It is the only refugee camp in the world to be run by the refugees themselves. They have overseen the maintenance of high literacy rates, equal rights for women and have a commitment to non-violence. This is well-documented. This work is against a backdrop of living in the presence of 150,000 armed Moroccan soldiers, within one of the world's largest minefields and with regular human rights abuses perpetrated by the colonial forces.
Polisario, for its part, has outlawed the practice of slavery and sees isolated examples of marriage restrictions – the only form of "slavery" that can be said to remain - as a cultural relic no longer appropriate in the 21st century.
Visits by countless human rights groups and journalists over the last few decades has not revealed one example of the kind of slavery "discovered" by the film-makers of "Stolen".
António Guterres UN High Commissioner for Refugees wrote on 22 June 2009, in response to a statement by the filmmakers of "Stolen" that UNHCR supports their allegations, that "UNHCR has not seen the film before its release, and has not approved its content or conclusions either. The film does not reproduce faithfully the opinions of the UNHCR…"
He continues, "UNHCR has established for a long time a presence in the refugee camps of Tindouf. It does not have any information that practices similar to slavery have taken place in the camps. In fact, no occurrence of this practice has been brought to the attention of the HCR. Had that been the case, I can assure you that the HCR would have raised the matter with the authorities concerned."
This film dons the garb of a documentary. Yet, in it, truth has only a walk-on part at best.
Yet, it opens with the imprimatur of the Australian Government and of Screen Australia.
Screen Australia is not ignorant of the problems in "Stolen". It has received extensive correspondence from Western Sahara experts over a period of many months. Personally, I have spent the last 3 years trying to warn Screen Australia and met its CEO in March 2009 to discuss issues related to "Stolen.
Also, Screen Australia's Terms of Trade requires filmmakers who receive its grants to act in good faith, to be honest and open in all dealings with Screen Australia and to not mislead or deceive by act or omission.
Funding recipients are also expected to respect the intellectual property rights of all relevant persons whether those rights be copyright or moral rights.
Given that it is now public knowledge that the interviews featured in the film are misleading and often wrong on many counts and, given many other interviewees in the film did not give their consent to appear in the film and/or have actively sought to have their inclusions removed from the film on the grounds of falsified treatment, it would appear neither obligation has been met.
This film and its back story require a serious investigation and, until informed conclusions are reached, it should immediately be withheld from distribution.