An intriguing but somewhat leaden take on an exiled woman’s return to the refugee camp of her birth, “Wilaya” reps helmer Pedro Perez Rosado’s return to a subject explored in his more absorbing feature “Stories From the Saharawi War.” Though valuable as an examination of identities split between cultures, and a necessary reminder of a political hot potato that’s widely ignored, the pic fails to capitalize on any of the multiple dramatic opportunities brought up by its premise. Nevertheless, the subject matter should still be enough to find “Wilaya” a home in politically slanted fest sidebars.
After being adopted and raised in Spain, Fatimetu (Nadhira Mohamed) returns to the Smara camp in the Western Sahara when she hears of her mother’s death. (The camps were set up in the 1970s for Saharawis fleeing from Moroccan forces during the Western Sahara War ; still stateless, these refugees continue to represent a thorny political issue.) There, Fatimetu is reunited with her crippled schoolteacher sister, Hayata (Memona Mohamed), and her brother, Jatri (Mohamed Moulud), who tell her that their mother has left Hayata in her care.
Fatimetu suffers inevitable culture shock over, for example, Jatri’s backward attitudes toward women and marriage, and spends much time gazing forlornly at images of her buddies on her cell phone. But she decides to stick around, grows closer to Hayata and buys a truck, which she uses to distribute meat around the camp, making her a quiet pioneer as the area’s first female truck driver.
With a strong insider’s eye for detail (it’s clear that Perez Rosado’s love and concern for the region is genuine), the pic is always thought-provoking in its exploration of themes relating to exile and how it distorts selfhood, and to the clash between modernity and tradition. The camp’s values have largely stood still as the rest of the world has changed, with refrigerators repping pretty much the technological edge in Smara.
Although never exactly slow-moving, “Wilaya” operates within a very narrow dramatic range, a problem embodied in the buttoned-down perf of Nadhira Mohamed, a non-pro thesp who sometimes seems as lost in her role as her character does in her new situation. A subplot involving confused, abandoned teen Said (Ainina Sidagmet), a clumsy suitor for Fatimetu, could have been authentically heartbreaking in the hands of a different helmer.
Oscar Duran does fine, often stunning widescreen work, only occasionally lapsing into gratuitous exoticism. More often the visuals remind auds that beneath the desert’s beauty lies a brutal isolation experienced by the community that has been forced into exile there. Aziza Brahim’s solo voice music brings a memorably lyrical air to several scenes, while the soundwork plays a crucial role in establishing mood.