Berlin 2012: Javier Bardem Talks About Alvaro Longoria's 'Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony' (Q&A)
Few people outside of Spain have even heard of the post-Colonial drama of the Sarhawi people who live to this day in the Western Sahara. But that's something Javier Bardem wants to change. The Spanish actor has thrown his weight behind the documentary as producer and star to focus some of his starlight on one of the darker corners of the world. The Hollywood Reporter's Spain Bureau Chief Pamela Rolfe talked to Bardem about the documentary, the Sahara and optimism.
THR: This is clearly a personal project. I know that your contact with the Sahrawi people came while at a film festival, but what was it that really moved you about that experience?
Bardem: There are many reasons why I was moved by the experiences I had in the refugee camps. I suppose if I had to identify one to summarize it would be seeing the legacy as Spaniards that we left to the Sarhawis. That really gives you a different kind of responsibility. Of course, it wouldn't be the same if the Sarhawis weren't how they are-- so generous. I didn't find any hate or resentment toward us, but the opposite. The Spanish population helps the Sarhawis in a big way -- in a private way. So we want to help and we made the documentary because that's the way we can. You cannot change the world. But we can bring that story to some other people who may not be aware of it. In the end, those stories that are not told are stories that don't exist in people's minds.
THR: Outside Spain, the Western Sahara is largely an unknown problem. It's not even on the radar. How would you explain the situation and Spain's historic role to a complete outsider?
Bardem: That's actually why we tried to do the documentary, because it's not very easy to make sense of it. This film is about the Sarhawis. But in the end, it's about a lot of stories in the world that happen to be the same. Because they are not on the radar, as you say, they're not important. If they're not "important," then people don't move to try to change them. When I say people, I do mean society -- but I also mean governments that have the power to change the landscape. Imagine the situation between Israel and Palestine. It's such a big mess. You can be on one side or the other. But what's clear is that there's an urgent need for a solution there and that's been dragging on for so long. So you can imagine how much more difficult for a people like the Sarhawis that are so much less -- less population, less support. It's important to talk about a situation that people are not aware of and yet those people are having a really hard time to survive. The world is full of these stories. We didn't choose it. It chose us.
THR: There's a moment when you are interviewing Aminatou Haidar when she talks about the growing frustration with non-violence by saying she can no longer find the words to guide younger generations. It's a key moment. What do you see as the path for the Sarhawi people?
Bardem: She's an amazing lady who has lived through so many incredible situations. She presents the Sarhawis as they are -- a people who have been trying peacefully to demand legal rights, common sense rights, with the knowledge and consensus of the United Nations and yet they still feel they don't have a right. It's like Aminatou says -- they are a people that are really peaceful and don't want to move forward in a violent way, but "what can I tell the youth when after all these years and so many betrayals, we still don't matter." What can you say? It's very powerful to hear that from a person recognized as a peace leader in the world.
THR: Something depicted nicely in the film is not just a possible changing in strategy, but a changing of the guard from one generation to the next.
Bardem: People have been born and raised in refugee camps. Those people don't know what the older generation knew, their land, their future, their possibilities. There is a whole generation of people who have grown up in refugee camps asking themselves, "Why? What have we done wrong?" And Aminotou and others are still telling them that peace is what will bring us farther as a movement. But these generations are saying "no," because they see how the world changes and they see that if you do not make some noise, you are not in the news. And we -- society, the media -- either voluntarily or not we make them make decisions like that. It's a pity, because they are an example of people moving forward in the hardest situations with their very peaceful, positive and creative spirit.
THR: Not to minimize the effect of the film, but I'm curious if there's anything else aside from the hefty weight of your prestige and celebrity and the cost of the film that you have invested in this cause? Have you created some foundation or some economic support?
Bardem: Alvaro and I and others I know try -- and sometimes we succeed -- in a private, anonymous way in order for them to have better conditions. But that goes along with all the Spanish society that I mentioned before. There is a lot of awareness in the Spanish society. They bring kids here in the summertime because summers there are unbearable. They bring them here to Spain to see doctors. They send money and they send food. But that's not the goal. The goal is to try to change the scenario and for them to have what they deserve -- their land, their right to make a living out of their land. I could name thousands of people who are helping in a private way. That's not what it should be. We wanted to put it all together so people understand and can know what to ask of their governments in the political forums. But if you're asking about foundations, there are many pro-Sarhawi foundations in Spain and, of course, we can work through that, but if this film makes any money at all, it'll go straight to the refugee camp. But it's not just the film, there are many private initiatives.
THR: Many people outside Spain might not know the Bardem family's link with political activism. But it's something you come by honestly, no?
Bardem: It's not something you choose. It's not something you carry like a flag. It's a part of your education. I've seen people in my family doing whatever they could, however they could, in order to help to create a better way in a very humble way. What you see when you are little, stays with you. It stays a sense of humor, a way you eat or the way you enjoy a book. It's a part of your education.
THR: Would you consider yourself an optimist?
Bardem: Wow. In general? Ah … I believe in people. I'm going to be 43 years old, and my experience in life so far is that I've met way more good people -- people that are trying to help, people that are doing the best they can do to create a better world -- than people that I've met that are the opposite, people that are destroying or creating a horrible world. So I'm optimistic in that way. The bad news is that only the bad people reach the news because they are noisier.
THR: And with respect to this particular situation?
Bardem: I do. Alvaro and I were at the United Nations and we had the chance to be there for three or four days and speak to a lot of people. And there's an awareness for example of the violation of human rights is so strong that I'm optimistic in that sense that it will be supervised there's a sense that it has to be transformed. Transformed so they can have the freedom of speech, freedom to belong to different ideologies without being in prison or tortured. In that sense, the Arab Spring has taught us that it's possible. Even in the darkest regions, people have discovered their right of freedom. And yes, I'm optimistic in that sense.
THR: The number of languages used in the film highlights what an international problem it is.
Bardem: When we got there, we thought it was a local problem with the Spanish government. We made a journey, and as we make the journey, we discovered how many governments are actually involved in this problem. And of course, how many languages. I was amazed about the knowledge of the situation in so many different forums. Of course, on a street level, it's not a very well known crisis. But in political circles, it is.
THR: So what do you take away from the experience of making this documentary?
Bardem: I'm lucky in that I know a lot of good and capable people that can make it happen. We all need people. Human beings are not an island. I know a lot of people in different crafts. In this one, Alvaro has really worked hard to make it happen over the past four years. It's been a long road, and we're happy we have something to show. We wanted to make something real that people can have an opinion after watching it. In this case, it wasn't easy because you have to fight hard for people to speak. We weren't looking to jeopardize anyone. We just want people to learn and to take them through the journey of why this situation keeps being the same for so long.