Controversy erupts over 'Stolen' doc

Political thriller emerges as its subject denies slavery

SYDNEY -- As the Sydney Film Festival heads into its closing weekend, a political controversy has erupted over one of the festival's competition documentaries, "Stolen," which premiered Thursday.

The low-budget doc by Violetta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw centers on Faitim Salam, a 34-year-old mother of four and one of the thousands of refugees living in camps run by the Polisario Liberation Front in the Western Sahara Desert.

In the doc, Salam is portrayed as a black slave to the camp's white Arabs, a depiction she now says is wrong.

Salam flew to Sydney for the premiere with her husband, funded by the PLF, to voice her concerns about her portrayal in the film. "Practically everything in the film is not true, that (I am) a slave, that (my) mother is a slave," she said through an interpreter.

The film has been three years in the making, with Falshaw and Ayala traveling to Algeria to film Salam and the camps. The film originally was set to show a reunion between Salam and her mother, who brought her to the camp more than 30 years ago.

Ayala said that while making the film, the slavery story emerged and the film turned into a "political thriller."

"We went to the Sahara to tell one story but discovered something completely different," Ayala said. "This is a film that highlights slavery in both sides of the political conflict -- in the Polisario refugee camps, in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.

Falshaw told reporters at the premiere that he believes that the PLF, which is locked in a dispute with the Moroccan government over control of the Western Sahara, has coerced Salam and her husband into saying they are not slaves. The episode is the latest in a series of political challenges the filmmakers faced in getting the feature made.

"She told us her story and that is what we have put up on the screen," he said. "I feel awful that they are being marched out here to say it is not true."

Festival director Clare Stewart told ABC Radio "we welcome debate about films in the festival -- whether they are fiction or documentary."

"Stolen" is one of 10 documentary features nominated for the inaugural Foxtel documentary award at the festival, which carries an AUS$10,000 ($8,000) cash prize.