Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The thing about making documentaries is that you never know what you're going to get. In few cases is that more remarkable than in this one.

Violeta Ayala is an activist filmmaker who had a longstanding interest in the people of Western Sahara, fighting for independence from Morocco. Together with her partner Daniel Fallshaw, she travelled to Algeria to meet Saharawi people in refugee camps. Their film was intended to centre on a family reunion organised by the UN. But whilst in the camps, Violeta and Dan gradually realised that the people there were practising slavery, with black Africans owned by white Arabs - all quite legal under Saharawi law. Before long they were fleeing through the desert, being contacted by spies, uncovering shocking conspiracies of silence and beginning to wonder if they would ever escape with their tapes - or even their lives.

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There's almost a Blair Witch quality to this documentary - the naive young filmmakers suddenly out of their depth in a remote region where they've no idea where to turn for help. Recovered footage is interspersed with narration about important lost material, and some scenes are filmed with the camera supposedly off, pointing at Dan's feet. Sometimes what's important happens in the background whilst we think we're watching something else - smart viewers may figure out parts of what's going on faster than the filmmakers did. Of course, seeing filmmakers confront dangerous situations is hardly new, but the fact that these people had no idea they would be doing so gives the film an entirely different atmosphere and makes it much easier for viewers to imagine how they might feel in that situation.

Politically, the film is complex - that initial challenge to Violeta's idealism doesn't mean that she immediately switches sides. Instead, each step the filmmakers take seems to carry them deeper into the morass of political corruption, where nobody can really be trusted, and more unwholesome secrets are uncovered before the end. How these are interpreted is largely left up to the viewer. Violeta's own perspective frames the action but doesn't interfere with it. As a result the film often feels haphazard and uneven, but there's no denying that it's fascinating, or that what it reveals is tremendously important.

Note: The Western Saharan Association has spoken out against this film. Whilst not seeking to ban it, it contends that it was made for the sake of sensation and propaganda and that its allegations are untrue. Some participants in the film have since withdrawn their support for it.

Reviewed on: 06 Feb 2010
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Saharawi refugees in the Algerian desert speak out about slavery, and two filmmakers find themselves in unexpected danger.
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Read more Stolen reviews:

Jeff Robson ****

Director: Violeta Ayala, Daniel Fallshaw

Starring: Violeta Ayala, Daniel Fallshaw

Year: 2009

Runtime: 75 minutes

Country: Australia

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