Like much of documaker Pedro Perez Rosado’s previous work, his feature debut, the mesmerizing, ambitious “Stories From the Saharawi War,” focuses on a war-torn minority, here the inhabitants of the western Sahara. For more than a century, the region has been a political playground, first for Spain, then for Morocco. Though pic is more on the ball thematically than dramatically — unsurprising, given the multiple obstacles posed by its subject matter — this could be an interesting pickup for an enterprising, specialist distrib. However, commercial gains will be hard won for “War,” with politically themed fest sidebars its chief oases.
Pic reps a return by Perez Rosado to the region after his 1995 short, “Dream of the Half Moon.” Shot on location, “War” is based on the true story of a Spanish legionnaire who, in 1975, deserted to help defend the Saharawi from Spanish injustice and ended up living 18 years with them.
Pablo (Sergio Calleja), after being subjected to the masochistic attentions of his sergeant (Jorge De Juan), defies orders one night and refuses to rape a Saharawi girl, Fatimetu (Nina Mohammed Salem).
Thereafter, he spends several months in hiding under the tribe’s protection. He emerges, renamed Mojtar, only after the withdrawal of Spain from the territory — at which point the land is invaded by Morocco and the tribe has to leave, exiled to Mauritania.
Problematically, the script assumes prior knowledge of the complex political background. The male members of the community are guerrillas, fighting for Saharawi independence. They include Fatimetu’s father, Al-Heiba (Aleua Ahmed Bani) and his adopted son, Salah (Ahmed Labbat).
Salah’s relationship with the tribe is as awkward as Mojtar’s, which brings the pair into uneasy alliance.
Pic takes the form of brief vignettes in the life of the community between 1975 and the 1992 ceasefire. A Moroccan soldier is shot and buried, but then remarkably escapes, while arguments rage about Mojtar’s status within the family. A portrait emerges of a forgotten community under constant threat from unknown outsiders who control its destiny.
As the dramatic heart of the pic — and the filter through which these events pass — thesp Calleja has a tough call, not the least physically, but pulls it off. He plays Pablo as quiet and brooding, but the essential solitude of his character means he has little to bounce off. When alone, he delivers poetic, somewhat pretentious monologues that add little. There’s also a question mark over why such a sensitive fellow would ever have joined the famously brutal Spanish Foreign Legion.
Saharawi characters are mainly played by non-actors, but they’re entirely convincing, not least because many suffered the losses experienced by their characters. After half her family is wiped out, the mother, Um-Eljer (Aichatu Lemrabet), delivers wise, haunting dialogue, the camera holding tight on her unflinching, leathery features and seen-it-all eyes.
The documentarian in Perez Rosado comes through not only in his lingering over anthropological detail, but also in his fascination with the day-to-day dynamics of the community. All this tends occasionally to sideline the narrative, which proceeds elliptically.
Lensing ranges between handheld docu-like and wide exploitation of the harshness and grandeur of the desert, with its ochry land and untainted blue sky. Score is an appealing, jazz-flavored blend of Spanish and African influences.
For the record, pic, which world preemed at last year’s Sahara Film Festival, is the first shot in Hassania Arabic, the indigenous language of the Saharawi.