TED Fellow Saeed Taji Farouky’s first feature film, The Runner, documents the life of an activist and runner from Western Sahara, shedding light on the little-known conflict in the region. As the film makes its world premiere July 13 at the Galway Film Festival, Taji Farouky tells us how this documentary came to be, and speaks of his vision for a more inclusive Africa.
Tell us about your film — the subject, how long you’ve been working on it, and how you got involved in telling Salah’s story.
I started filming The Runner in 2009, so it’s been a four-year documentary project from beginning to end. The film tells the story of a remarkable man, Salah Hmatou Ameidan, who uses his talent as a runner to protest against the occupation of his homeland, Western Sahara. Salah is one of the most well-known independence activists from this relatively unknown territory, and his physical endurance is his weapon. The film covers three crucial years in his life that include his 30th birthday, the largest ever protest in Western Sahara and the birth of the Arab Spring — I use this term reluctantly as shorthand even though I don’t think it’s accurate — and it’s ultimately an intimate dialogue with Salah that tries to understand what drives him to do what he does. But Salah’s story also tells the story of the conflict in Western Sahara. It’s through this conflict that I first got involved in the film.
In 2006 I was invited, as a more mainstream journalist, to cover the 30th anniversary of the Sahrawi Republic — a state that was founded during the struggle for independence from Moroccan occupation but isn’t yet fully recognised by the international community. I’d barely heard of Western Sahara before that invitation, and the anniversary celebration told a crucial but largely overlooked story. The Sahrawi people have been resisting Moroccan occupation since 1975, but with almost none of the recognition of other independence movements. They’re living under a brutal occupation, or in refugee camps in the Algerian Sahara, trapped in a conflict that’s virtually unknown even though it’s staring everyone in the face. It’s right on Europe’s doorstep and covering an area larger than the United Kingdom. I knew I had to make a film about it, both to examine it personally (that’s the inspiration for all of my films), but also to generate more awareness of it. I didn’t know how to approach the subject on a personal level, though, so I kept it in the back of my mind.
Three years later a friend introduced me to Salah, and I knew the film would be about him. He was challenging, inspiring, vulnerable, complex, unrelenting: just the type of person I like to make films about.
What story did you set out to tell?
I wanted the film to be Salah’s story, but through that very personal approach we understand more about Western Sahara as a whole. Not as a history of the territory, but as a narrative of the struggle as experienced by its people. It’s an oral history approach. This is the only way I know to make films — I’ve never been able to make films about “a cause” or “a conflict.” They have to be about someone, someone who offers a surprising and revealing perspective on a subject. Salah is a radical, a guerrilla, a fighter, but he takes his fight to the people through a unique medium — a very creative and physical medium.
Now, I hope this doesn’t come across as narcissistic, but the film also reflects many elements of my own life. I have a lot in common with Salah — we’re both refugees, children of occupation. We both acknowledge that, under different circumstances, we might have joined the armed struggle. But, crucially, we both found creative outlets for our fights and transformed them into something constructive and nonviolent. We both wonder if that’s enough to achieve anything, and we’re both consumed by our forms of expression and resistance.
Do you feel that the process of filming the documentary in any way changed the outcome of or influenced the story? And how did the unfolding of the Arab Spring reshape this film?
The making of the film undoubtedly influenced the events in it. I think this is unavoidable when making documentaries, and quite honestly it makes me cringe to see documentaries that try so hard to pretend the filmmaker isn’t there. That’s impossible. So my voice is there in the film, I interact with Salah, and so the film becomes also about the creation of documentaries in general. I don’t think my presence majorly affected the actual trajectory of Salah’s life, but now Salah and I are in constant contact and we both appear at screenings as much as possible, so at the minimum we can say the film offers him another opportunity to express himself, as it offers me, too.
The Arab Spring actually began in Western Sahara, in a protest camp called Gdeim Izik in October 2010. It began with the demand for basic services for Sahrawis usually treated like second-class citizens, but by November it had become a massive encampment with 20,000 people, and had transformed into an independence movement. At that point the Moroccans lost their patience. The camp was violently raided and destroyed by hundreds of Moroccan policemen, and 11 people ended up dead, including 9 Moroccan policemen. By January 2011, we were all hearing about Tunisia in the news — but no one was talking about Gdeim Izik. It had been crushed. So for Salah and other Sahrawis, the Arab Spring brought with it a painful sense of disappointment and unfairness. They had something within their grasp, but it was torn from their hands. Then they could only watch as other people overthrew their dictators and achieved at least the first few steps towards freedom.
So in our film the Arab Spring appears just like that — as the potential for something huge, but a potential that ultimately becomes the sound of news reports from other countries in the background of Salah’s life. He could only watch as other countries achieve what Gdeim Izik didn’t.
How does this film reflect your own experiences, views and concerns about Western Sahara?
The Runner isn’t a propaganda or campaigning film by any means, but it’s also not an “objective” reportage about Western Sahara. I tried to make it as a skeptical but engaged filmmaker, so it reflects my belief in self-determination for all people, my support for the independence of Western Sahara (if that’s what the Sahrawi people want), an end to the occupation and a just solution to the massive displacement of refugees. At the same time, the film reflects the fact that this goal seems further than ever because the conflict is in a stalemate. There’s a ceasefire in place, but the violence and oppression continue and for many it seems hopeless and stagnant, and this is a feeling I tried to evoke in the documentary — continued resistance in the face of seeming intransigence.
My fear is that the conflict in Western Sahara has been so marginalised there’s virtually no pressure from anyone to resolve it, and the selfish priorities of European and American politicians will keep it this way for a long time unless it’s constantly challenged. So the film also aims to keep the narrative moving and serve as a provocation, a constant reminder of this injustice.
But the film really isn’t about Western Sahara, it’s about Salah, so it reflects my fascination with his life, his singular drive and his status as a somewhat reluctant hero to his people; a status that actually makes him — in my opinion — a very lonely man. I wanted to ask what happens as a rebel grows older and has to make difficult decisions about his priorities. So in this way, it also speaks more broadly about the development of all liberation movements. The central question I kept asking during the making of the documentary was “How long before you stop running?” It’s a question I think many of us can ask about our own struggles.
You live in the UK now, but identify as African. Can you tell us about this?
I identify as African because my mother was Egyptian. I also identify as Palestinian because my father is Palestinian. And I identify as British because I was born there and I hold the passport. I think it’s important that we recognise North African Arabs as part of Africa — a part that’s often either fully rejected, or at least marginalized in the narrative of Africa. We are African, and we reflect the diversity of Africa even though we don’t always fit people’s preconceptions of Africans. I think this reflects a fundamental racism, to be honest, and I think that needs to be challenged. But it’s complex because I’m talking about racism from both sides — non-Africans who don’t consider Arabs as Africans, but also Arabs who don’t want to consider themselves African. The more we can broaden the concept of what it means to be African, the better we can understand the cultures of the continent that are still so obscenely reduced to generalities and stereotypes in ways that would never be tolerated if we were talking about North America, or Europe.
Where and how is Salah now? Or do you not want to give an ending away?
Salah is still living the resistance. He’s still living in Avignon as a stateless refugee, still competing as an athlete and still an activist who’s slowly gaining more recognition. Unfortunately, he continues to face tragedies in his already difficult life. Our film references his most recent tragedy, and I only hope the film can act as an adequate memorial without seeming exploitative. Salah finds it appropriate, and that’s enough to reassure me.
Good question. Well, The Runner actually took so long to make that we shot, edited and released another film while we were still editing it, and both films are now out at the same time. We made an experimental ecological documentary in the Norwegian Arctic called There Will Be Some Who Will Not Fear Even That Void. It’s been called “a documentary film from the future,” which I think is a perfect summary, so hopefully that’s enough to intrigue people.
After that, I’m looking at co-directing a long-term documentary on a group of men in the Afghan National Army, but it remains to be seen if that will really be my next feature documentary. Is it something I’m willing to spend the next three years on? I guess that’s the question. I’ll let you know in a few months.
Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the incredible dedication and sacrifice of everyone who’s in the documentary, and the tireless work of the team who made the documentary with me. It’s our film, not mine.
The Runner is Saeed Taji Farouky’s first feature documentary and will premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh on July 13th.