‘Stolen,’ The Documentary about Human Trafficking in Sub-Saharan Africa is Almost 5 Years Old
It’s time for another visit.
In these tumultuous times that are racked with the threat of a President who helped build the wall that we are all trying to scale without falling to our death — and the media that continuously drives the narrative of our imminent extinction — it’s hard to coerce a method of existence that doesn’t rattle savage tendencies.
In the midst of this new normal — I have managed to remain sane by rustling through the past in order to validate the present and secure the future.
I know the years to come will be formed by the violence of what we now recognize even though the truth was never quite hidden from view.
I believe there is more good than bad because I’ve seen the warriors at work.
They willingly surrender their comfort for the sake of exposing organizations that parade under the umbrella of “justice” but are really operating under a cowardly blueprint — that is based on the bias of a global brand.
Five years ago, I had the utmost pleasure of speaking with filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Daniel Fallshaw about their controversial documentary — Stolen. This husband and wife team took the time to speak to me on a Sunday afternoon while holed up in a non-specified location in Paris, which was necessary due to the rigorous circumstances — that almost derailed their passionate quest to document the ugliness of human trade flourishing in the corner of the word that most preferred to ignore — including The United Nations.
I am so proud and honored that despite the danger they faced based on the damaging information they had unearthed — they were willing to speak to a writer with no impressive traffic numbers or media presence. It was all about the story. Those were the days, eh?
Here is the interview in it’s entirety:
AfroPoP provides the perfect setting for Stolen, a riveting documentary that was originally scheduled to air on February 5 but due to the heat being generated by outside forces as a result of interference from international organizations and media outlets, a postponement was inevitable. The extra time was strategically utilized so that filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Daniel Fallshaw with the aid of the network could prepare additional segments that will serve as informative and interactive sessions to help diffuse the growing tensions that have arisen due to the film’s sensitive subject matter.
Both Ayala and Fallshaw stand by the work they have produced and ironically never set out to document a film revolved around modern day slavery. The goal was to capture the touching reunion between Fetim Sellami, a Saharawi refugee and her mother who she had not seen since she was child under the watchful eyes of the UN. It was during this period of nostalgic interlude that things took a tumultuous turn, as it became uneasily clear that this particular story wasn’t going to end well. The reunion venue turned into a confession room, as Fetim and her relatives recalled the circumstances that led to the forced separation, which ultimately landed Fetim in the refugee camp run by the Polisarios, who are the governing body of the Saharawis. Once she arrived, she was set up to work for white Saharawis and based on the dialogue taped by Ayala and Fallshaw, there is no question that slavery in these camps is considered a way of life and almost a rite of passage for the young children who are brutally separated from their families. There was no other option but to explore the matter further and this led to testimonies from other willing participants who passionately described their predicaments as well as their unwavering hope that this practice of human trafficking will be abolished.
After collecting all the verbal evidence on tapes, what ensues is a dramatic sequence of events that takes the now pursued and vulnerable filmmakers from the cafes of Paris to the dusty roads of Mauritania and then the climatically charged backdrop of New York City.
Stolen is a film that will change your perception and charge you with the responsibility of searching your feelings and ideals when it comes to the value of basic human rights.
MyTrendyBuzz had the privilege of speaking with the filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Daniel Fallshaw.
Check it out below!
MTB: While watching the film, I was struck by the pockets of danger that erupted at almost every turn, were there moments when you thought this project could cost you both your lives and are you still somewhat fearful?
D: We were concerned that things would get out of hand in terms of what is going on between when we finished the film to now. I don’t feel it everyday but when I think about it one of the law firms sent a letter to PBS to ask them not to show the film and they paid about a million dollars courtesy of the Algerian government to lobby here in the United States. So you are talking a million dollars a year for one company to do that, how much and how strong is the desire to not have a film like Stolen shown. So it just depends on how far they are willing to go and sometimes well maybe they could do something to us but I guess its not something I think about everyday but it is definitely something that is there.
V: Even when we were making the film it was like stepping on stones and it was like…I didn’t look back because the power and strength of the people, these kids, empowered me. I remember one day when I asked one of the guys we talked to why he decided to tell me these stories and he said because you are the only person who decided to look at us, the only person who turned your camera to a black family and gave us a platform and treated us like human beings. And I thought what can I do for real? At the time I think I was very naïve and I was thinking I will make this film and things will change tomorrow. But unfortunately that isn’t the case. You have two choices when human rights are being threatened, either you walk away or do something. If you take the first choice it will be harder but as a human being I believe I didn’t’ have a choice. I don’t want to be an accomplice to this.
MTB: Do you think your interactions with Fetim and her mother permanently altered their lives and were you disappointed that Fetim and her husband ended up protesting the film by claiming they were duped?
D: I guess for us it was always once the Polisario became aware that the subject of the film had become slavery we knew there would be implications for Fetim and her family. I don’t think the film has affected the relationship between Fetim and her biological mother. She hasn’t seen for almost thirty years and I do wonder how Fatim feels about her white mother Deido; does she feel closer to her or does she feel like she despises her more? I don’t know I mean without actually being there. And as for Fetim’s husband, they don’t live together. He’s been living in Spain and we filmed him there and he hasn’t seen her for a few years. So when they went to Australia for the film festival, that was the first time they had seen each other in a long time. That was organized by the Polisario who ran the refugee camps. They took Fetim and her husband to Australia to say what they do — to say that we tricked them and paid them and that we work for Morocco.
V: I will say that I was disappointed but not surprised at all considering the pressure they have been putting on us from 2007–2009 when we finished the film. It has been intense, we have been detained and the UN had to negotiate our release. I think the film truly represents Fetim and where she is sitting in this place. She fights a little bit but she has been described as a black woman with a white heart. But the complicated relationship she has with Deido makes you understand where she is coming from. She is not a fighter, she doesn’t like her situation but she doesn’t want to fight it because she is afraid.
MTB: How do you respond to the critics who are convinced that your tactical methods of filmmaking presented an issue that doesn’t exist when it comes to the idea that modern day slavery thrives in Western Sahara?
D: I think since the beginning the Polisario have waged a political and media campaign to discredit the film and us and their motivation is political, they don’t want people around the world to think or know slavery exists in these refugee camps. Their fight hinges on their image and they’ve got these left wing freedom fighters they call the Polisario Liberation Front — they are supposed to be there to liberate their people. How can an organization like that be seen to maintain a place where slavery exists? We went there to make a film and had no idea and like we said the people themselves came to us and said slavery affects our lives and things aren’t what they seem. We didn’t ask and we didn’t go looking for it. So I think we had this responsibility to tell their story, we really did. And despite all the negative aspects of it, our safety being threatened and their safety being threatened, we decided to go ahead and tell their story because it was more important. This issue is historically documented in the whole region. I mean it’s a historical fact that in Southern Morocco, Sudan, Mauritania, Algeria and across the Sahara, slaves have existed in this culture for a long, long time and its still happening. To say we made it up is far fetched and a way to hide the truth. One of the questions I want people to ask when they see the film is how can the UN react like this? The UN High Commission for the refugees who are supposed to be safeguarding the rights of all the refugees around the world is saying — “Well it’s a culture problem and we can’t concern ourselves.” We are talking about slavery! It’s in the human convention for human rights! It drives me crazy.
V: But also with all the things they criticize in the film, they forget one fact; that we decided to put everything in the film. It was our decision. We wanted to depict the truth. We decided to include everything that is in that film. Another thing is the motivation of the people that criticize the film — it’s suspect. And there was no one from the UN there to safeguard. They were either white or Arabs from Egypt so for me that says it all. I remember when we were in the camp the guys we talked to who shared their stories. They wanted to talk to the UN and we called them 17 times and they never called back or bothered to come. They never responded because it was not politically motivating. Another thing to note is that the United Nations doesn’t have a human rights mandate in the Western Sahara. It’s the only mission that doesn’t have a human rights mandate. All they do is organize memorandum and protect the refugees but they don’t have human rights mandate. It’s something that is important to highlight and I think that every year that the mandate is renewed that it is 100% necessary that the UN have a human rights mandate. We need to highlight this and I hope that after we initiate the discussion the UN will go back to the table and reconsider.
MTB: What is the message you are hoping to convey with your film and considering the genesis of the project, are you now comfortable with the role you are playing in helping to expose a controversial issue that has garnered global attention?
D: I really hope it gets more and as much attention as it needs to end this. It’s funny because we are filmmakers not activists. I knew a filmmaker who was in a similar situation with a film he made that took on an activists role and he said that he hopes his film has a life of its own and I hope that Stolen does have a life of its own. But Stolen is like a child, you put it out in the world, it grows up and it gets tougher and it will take on it’s own role and it will tell and show people this story and continue to do it. I don’t know the answer and Violeta doesn’t know the answer but I think if there is one place in the world where this type of slavery can end its in the refugee camp monitored by the international community that is also funded by the international community and if we can’t affect change in this place, then God help the rest of the people in North Africa who don’t live in such a place.
V: But I feel like it was a burden when we discovered this, it was like carrying something heavy on my back but the moment I shared with everybody else, it became everybody’s responsibility and I think that never again can the United Nations say that they didn’t know. Yes you know. Yes it is an issue. And Yes you need to discuss it. The film has been in 8 festivals and won 15 awards but I couldn’t imagine it ever ending up on public television so I really commend the courage of AfroPoP. What they have done is remarkable, not only for the film and the slavery issue but for the freedom of expression. The fact that it’s going to be shown is a massive step forward. They also did a report and went and talked to the Polisario and the Moroccans and made it clear that this was not acceptable and if the politicians don’t care about this they as an organization are not tolerant of this kind of behavior. I am 100% proud of my work and if I was in the same situation again I would do it all over again and I would do it better and stronger. There is nothing in this world that these people can do to me and I am not scared and they can keep trying but I am unaffected by these people because I know what I have done. I know I have done the right thing.