AMSTERDAM — “Hamada” is an Arabic word meaning “desert,” and for the Sahrawi people who live there, in the middle of the Sahara, it has another meaning: “Emptiness.” One might think, then, that a film with such a title, dealing with stateless migrants, wouldn’t exactly be a laughing matter, but Eloy Domínguez Serén’s feature-length documentary debut is not at all what you might expect. Instead, his film has more in common with the American “slacker” cinema boom of the 1990s, depicting a group of young people coming to terms with a bleak future of unemployment by using humor as a tool and nursing long-held dreams of escape.
Since Morocco annexed the Western Sahara in 1975 and expelled the Sahrawi from their original habitat, refugee camps have sprung up round the Algerian border. It is against this dark backdrop that we meet Sidahmed, Zaara and Taher, who usher Serén’s fascinated camera – and us – into a previously hidden world, where the tribespeople live in isolation, separated from their homeland by miles and miles of minefield and thousands of kilometers of fortified military wall.
Variety spoke to Serén as he prepared for his film’s world premiere at IDFA.
How did you get started on this project?
Eloy Domínguez Serén: I had always known about this area since I was at school. At the time, let’s say, the Spanish educational system still didn’t talk so much about this issue. But I had known about it for many years. When I graduated, I knew there was a very small and modest film school in one of the camps in the Sahara. So I applied as a volunteer teacher, and that was my first trip to the Sahara and to the camps.
Did you always intend to make a film there?
The first time, I didn’t even take any equipment with me, because my aim was just to try to help people who had never seen a camera before to make films and tell their own stories. So I spent, the first time, two months doing this, and then I kept coming back, between 2014 and 2017. The second time I came with the intention that, as well as my work as teacher, I was going to make a film. But in the beginning it was actually going to be a film about cars. I was very, very interested in cars, and I thought I could tell the history of these people through cars. But then it developed into something else.
What was your starting point?
In the beginning I thought that it was going to be an ensemble film with many characters – in Spanish we say “coral”, like a choir. I thought that I would tell the story of these people through their very special connection with cars – because something unique about this place is that you see all these old cars that you wouldn’t see across Europe any more. Like, these very old Land Rovers and Mercedes that have completely disappeared from our roads. Many of these cars are there, and once they don’t work any more, they just stay with their families, so to speak. So, for me, something very important about cars is that they are very symbolic, because cars are related with memory, are related with identity, are related with [status]. For example, the Land Rover is almost like a sacred relic.
Why is that?
It’s related with the war, with the exodus. But most of all it’s a symbol of mobility, in a place where people are very constrained and limited. So even though most of the families have a car, and most of them are very good with mechanics, these cars cannot really take them very far away. The young people have to find ways to fill their days, because most of them are unemployed and there aren’t so many prospects of getting a job. So many of them spend their days fixing cars, or talking about cars, and even one of the ways they make money is by smuggling cars – they go to Spain, bring an old car over and sell it in the camp. So in the beginning I really thought that cars could be a very interesting approach, something that would represent the way this society lives.
How did you find the characters?
This is a very small community, and we knew each other very well. There were two or three young people who were related to the film school where I was teaching, and they started to be more and more interested in film. So, in the beginning, I encouraged them to make their own films. Then I realized that Zaara, the girl, was also very interested in cars, and that was very refreshing. It gave me a more philosophical approach [to my idea]. I started to follow her, and in the beginning she was kind of my expert in mechanics, and then, after some months, I realized that the people who had been helping me all the way, were [absolutely right for this film]. So on the third or fourth trip I spent even more time with them, but I wouldn’t spend a lot of time with them without a camera – only with the camera. And then I realized that they were not only very interesting personalities, they would also complement each other very well as characters: they have to face a very similar situation, they are more or less the same age, but they have very different temperaments and very different points of view. Also, their roles in society are very different, being male and female.
How long did you spend with them?
Each time I went I would stay for two months, which was the maximum amount of time I could stay there in a row. So I would say it was two months, two months, two months, for three years. Three years of shooting.
They aren’t at all self-conscious in front of the camera. Were you surprised by that?
Yeah. The most beautiful experience for me was actually not just making the film but also working at the school – their approach to cinema wasn’t influenced by [other] audiovisuals in the way that we are in Europe, so their approach was really refreshing and free from that kind of prejudice. In their own films, I noticed that they have an approach to cinema that was very different and imaginative. For example, the way we developed the film was this: Every day I would ask them: ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to say? What do you want to film?’ So they were very, very active in this film. Zaara loved the camera. In the case of Sidahmed, maybe he wasn’t so conscious of that, but he was definitely very active. I was very surprised by how fast they learned, not just the cinematic language in general, but how they developed their own cinematic language. This was very important in the editing, because we never had a narrative arc or a plot. That came much later, in the editing, when we realized that there was a specific journey that both of them had gone through.
They’re also very funny. Did you expect that?
No, this was very surprising to me. They have a very sharp sense of humor, and they are very vital people – not only the younger generations but the elder generations too. So that was very spontaneous and very natural. I didn’t know there would be so much humor in the film because I didn’t understand [the language]. I knew that Zaara was a magic character, and that she would be magic onscreen, but I didn’t really know what she was saying. Then suddenly, many months later, I found out… [Laughs] It was like a Christmas gift!