Javier Bardem’s name will do much to raise the profile of “Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony,” a slick docu on the Western Sahara crisis geared to capture the attention of Western auds. The thesp, acting here as producer, understands that only celebrity can break the public’s lack of receptivity to the conflict, and his commitment to the cause is heartfelt and admirable. Helmer Alvaro Longoria gathers a slew of important talking heads as well as rare archival footage for a generally well-argued tract, with only occasional missteps. Human-rights fests and TV will provide good platforms.
In 2008, Bardem was a guest of the FiSahara Film Festival in Dakhla, an Algerian refugee camp housing thousands of displaced Sahrawis (the term for people from Western Sahara). The injustice he saw galvanized the actor, who’s been championing the cause ever since. “Sons of the Clouds” traces the history of the conflict in a generally praiseworthy manner, though Longoria, previously a producer, needs to do more to prove the suspect supposition that the Sahrawi loved their Spanish colonizers.
Far better is the way the docu explains how the Western Sahara became a pawn in the cynical game of Cold War realpolitik. In the 1970s, when the Spanish decided to offer the territory a referendum on self-determination, they found themselves in a battle with Morocco and Mauretania (the latter country largely ignored here), which both claimed ownership. The docu errs by failing to mention long-simmering tensions between Spain and Morocco over the city-colonies of Ceuta and Melilla, a crucial element in the backstory, and doesn’t make enough of the area’s valuable phosphate reserves.
It does better in explaining the subsequent political alignments, when the West, led by the U.S. and France, sided with Morocco against Soviet allies Algeria and Libya, who were arming the Sahrawis through the Polisario Front.
Since then, the situation has degenerated, with Morocco (leveraging its strategic importance as a moderate Arab state) building an enormous wall across the desert, cutting the territory in two, and refusing to allow the U.N. mandated referendum on independence. Diplomats interviewed boldly talk of Morocco’s campaigns of bribery and intimidation, and those who’ve visited the Moroccan-controlled areas say they put other police states to shame.
As human-rights activist Aminetu Haidar discouragingly says, young Sahrawis no longer believe a diplomatic solution is possible(current estimates of displaced Sahrawi refugees hover around 200,000). The docu ends on a slightly hopeful note, incorporating some recent positive developments, though cautious optimism can too easily turn into disappointment.
Visuals are straightforward, and the film’s researchers are to be commended for finding a trove of archival material that, despite deterioration, adds much to the overall picture. Narrator Angie de Birch’s vocal intonation is unfortunately not suited to cinematic ventures, and short animated sequences appear incongruously lifted from a child’s cartoon.