Galician director Eloy Domínguez Serén has a clear interest in existence in exile. Having moved to Sweden, his initial culture shock and difficulties establishing a foothold in the country swiftly became the focus of his debut feature film released in 2015, No Cow on the Ice.
For his latest documentary, Hamada, he turns his attention to one of the most inhospitable terrains in the world: the rocky, wind-eroded desert of the Western Sahara (the «hamada»), where the Sahrawi people have resided in refugee camps for more than 40 years, in what is now officially Algeria. This unresolved displacement occurred alongside decolonisation, when Spain divided control of its former colony, Spanish Sahara, between Morocco and Mauritania through the 1975 Madrid Accords – a treaty not fully recognised by international law. A sand wall separates the zones of control as the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi national liberation movement seeking self-determination, drags on.
Hamada is little concerned with dry, factual analysis. Instead, it immerses us sympathetically in an atmospheric portrait of a people and their tenuous sense of belonging. The natural desert beauty of the location lends itself to gorgeous cinematography and shot-framing, but it has few practical attributes to sustain human life on the ground.
Resilience of hope
Just enough of the Sahrawi people’s history is sketched out for us to understand why they feel so uprooted. The film includes interspersed protest footage, showing the people calling on the United Nations to ensure the return of their land. But the film works mostly weaves through a quietly intimate, observational set of incidents seen through the eyes of several youngsters living in the camp.
«Self-reliance is now so limited that survival is only possible through international humanitarian assistance.»
Infused with warm humour and longing, these moments coalesce into motifs that express much about the resilience of hope amid the stifling stagnation and curtailed options inherent in the harsh reality and politics of adulthood. The most prominent and poignant of these is the obsession with cars that grips many of the inhabitants. These offer the holy grail of independent freedom of movement in a desert expanse with limited transportation infrastructure, but often create more frustrations than they solve (the image of a vehicle sunk into the sand and needing to be dug out with bare hands only emphasises the environment’s unyielding nature).
Zahra is a headstrong young woman who is dead set on learning to drive and owning her own Land Rover. Sidahmed is the male friend she enlists to help her. Progress is shaky as she rebels against his impatient style of instruction in amusing outbursts and struggles to get the knack of being behind the wheel. The lessons are curtailed completely when he leaves for Spain, but that doesn’t stop her. She seeks out another teacher, and doubles down on her dream. The form of independence she is chasing has a strongly gendered dimension. After all, her car-owning brothers can take off on trips whenever they like, while she has to stay at home.
She lists attributes of her imaginary ideal man – acceptance that she does not need permission to go anywhere – even «to the moon» if she chooses. An apt idea when everywhere else on earth seems just as beyond reach.
Determined to make it to Spain
Zahra’s discovery of her grandfather’s fishing rod – a useless tool in the arid hamada – is another incident that evokes a sense of how much the lifestyle of these once-nomadic people has changed. Under enforced foreign influence, opportunities for self-reliance are now so limited that survival is only possible through international humanitarian assistance. Throughout the film, we follow Zahra’s quest for gainful employment. She tries to talk her way in everywhere, from the local library to the mechanic’s, which both see through her lack of appropriate skills. She finally agrees to assist at the maternity ward at the hospital, a voluntary position she hopes will open doors for her. She watches videos about childbirth in preparation; a crash-course in the perpetuation of the species, as it were.
Meanwhile, Sidahmed learns the hard way that the old adage is true, and the grass is not always greener. Determined to make it to Spain legally or illegally, he joins the exodus of the Sahara’s young generation to pursue the greater material prospects Europe harbours. Modern communications mean he’s still connected to his friends – and he reveals to them that he «truly hates it» in Spain. He is regarded with disdain for being an Arab there; he longs to return to the camp.
This underscores the continual pain of displacement, and its attendant illusions that security for one’s identity may be discovered elsewhere or in the freedom of movement itself. The path for refugees is a tough one indeed when it comes to reinventing a real sense of home. But it materialises through his poignant story that this sense of home resides as much in collective memory as it does in the blank pages of future opportunities.