Lost Land: Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlinale 2011
Reflective dispatches from the aftermath of a Saharan war add weight to a taxingly slow, impressionistic documentary.

BERLIN — Despite parallels with the Israeli/Palestine situation, the conflict in Western Sahara -- partitioned by 1,500-mile-long wall, and scene of considerable, intermittent strife since the 1970s -- has been little reported outside Africa. As a very high-end kind of personal, artistic documentary, Lost Land (Territoire perdu) is unlikely to bring the area into a significantly brighter international spotlight. Informative and elegant in a rough-edged way, but ruminative to the point of static tedium, it's suitable mainly for non-fiction festivals and events specializing in human-rights themes.

Belgian writer/director Pierre-Yves Vandeweerd shows us only one side of the wall, and only one side of the conflict, which has been under ceasefire since 1991 (giving way to a war of attrition and waiting). Using Super 8 cameras, he presents starkly beautiful images of the Sahrawi nomads -- whose wandering culture has been severely curtailed by the wall's presence -- and their environment. With only very occasional sequences in color, the film mainly consists of long monochrome shots, which have the feel of a sensitive traveler's photo album though some of the very special texture of 8mm has been lost in the transfer to boxy-looking DigiBeta video.

In a film whose carefully composed sound is at least as important as the visuals, the narration mainly consists of often-harrowing testimony from older Sahrawis whose memories of 1970s atrocities -- blamed on Moroccan invaders -- remain powerfully fresh.

Elsewhere Vandeweerd fills his soundtrack with wind noises, radio extracts, rhythmic susurrations and the lowing of camels, the desert conveyances providing him with a baldly metaphorical closing shot as they express their displeasure at being enclosed in a makeshift pen.
Occasional title cards provide definitions for Arabic words and phrases particularly relevant to the history of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which has only partial international recognition. These include "Ahel L Hala" or "People of the Void," which refers to those "disappeared" or abducted during the conflict's more active phase several decades ago, here accompanying a whispered litany of lost loved ones.

Vandeweerd's empathy with the Sahrawis is evident throughout, and this uncompromising film is evidently his attempt to capture the special rhythms and moods of wind-blown, sparsely populated desert life, as typified by one craggy senior-citizen who recalls that his grandfather "taught me the art of silence ... The circle of words is very narrow." For audiences willing to adapt to Lost Land's demands, the rewards do come, but some will perhaps find it all a little too inscrutable to enable proper, sustained engagement.
 
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Zeugma; Cobra Films in co-production with Arte -- La Lucarne and CBA, Brussels
Director, screenwriter, director of photography: Pierre-Yves Vandeweerd
Producers: Michel David, Anne Deligne, Daniel De Valck
Editor: Philippe Boucq
Sales: Zeugma, Paris
No rating, 74 minutes

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