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Australian-based filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw originally set out to make a documentary about an under-reported land dispute in Northern Africa. Once they started shooting, however, they gradually stumbled on a story about modern slavery that has become hugely controversial.

In 2007, Ayala and Fallshaw were drawn to the cause of the Polisario Liberation Front, which represents the Sahrawi people (meaning “people of the Sahara”), who have long struggled for control of the Western Sahara against the competing interests of Morocco and other factions. The two spent several weeks in a refugee camp controlled by the Polisario. Inside the camps, a complex hierarchy exists between the white Arabs and blacks, all of whom consider themselves Sahrawi. The filmmakers focused on a black woman in her thirties named Fetim Sellami, who is reunited with her mother through a United Nations programme. Sellami has a noticeably servile relationship to an older white woman named Deido. Upon further questioning, the filmmakers recorded persuasive testimony that a form of slavery continues to be practised. The existence of modern slavery has been detailed in books like Kevin Bales’s Disposable People, but rarely has it been covered on film as intimately as in Stolen.

The Polisario staunchly maintains that it forbids slavery. When Ayala and Fallshaw raised the topic in the camps, they soon found themselves unwelcome. Fearing that their tapes would be seized, the filmmakers buried them in the desert and fled. Stolen turns into a tale of suspense and political intrigue as the filmmakers struggle to recover their tapes. Placing themselves in the story, Ayala and Fallshaw document their own moral quandaries. They include a statement by Sellami maintaining that she’s not a slave, contradicting what others say. The filmmakers don’t purport to have all the answers, but they do raise important questions. You can expect a heated discussion after each screening.

To learn about STOLEN’s fundraising campaign to bring more attention to the issue of slavery in the Sahara by getting their film into theaters in NY and LA, click here.

Co-presented with the African Film Festival