'Hamada': Film Review | IDFA 2018

Courtesy of International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
Droll desert delight.

The feature-length debut from Sweden-based Spanish director Eloy Dominguez Seren world-premiered at the Amsterdam documentary showcase.

There have been dozens of refugee-camp documentaries down the decades, but never anything quite like Eloy Dominguez Seren's disarmingly breezy Hamada. A droll glimpse into the lives of three engaging twenty-somethings in Tifariti, on the fringes of the Sahara desert between Algeria and the Moroccan-occupied state of Western Sahara, it is also a valuable and accessible introduction to an exceptionally long-rumbling conflict which hardly ever makes any international headlines.

Dominguez Seren's shorter works — most notably the 2015 mid-lengther No Cow on the Ice — have proven popular selections at discerning festivals in the last few years, and Hamada's warmly received premiere at IDFA should prove the springboard to wider exposure for this Sweden-Germany-Norway co-production, the helmer's first feature-length outing.

Spanish but resident in Sweden since 2012, Dominguez Seren takes a self-effacing fly-on-the-wall approach to his subjects, and so natural and relaxed are they on-camera that he seems to have achieved a kind of invisibility for himself and his equipment. During one early sequence, he accompanies some young men driving and chatting, a delightful sequence which captures the kind of insult-peppered verbal rough-housing typical of such well-acquainted individuals the world over.

Dominguez Seren accumulates such scenes with a beguilingly light touch, the focus returning again and again to a trio of main protagonists: Zaara, Sidahmed and Tahar. Of the three, Sidahmed is the most vocally discontented, dreaming of starting a new life in Spain. He wants to get far away from the quotidian pressures of refugee life in an area which has been home to thousands of Sahrawi people since they were driven out of their homeland by the Moroccan armed forces in the mid-1970s. Now they live a kind of limbo existence in this windswept frontier territory; the title, as an opening card explains, is an Arabic term meaning emptiness or lifelessness.

But while the Sahara's sandy vistas do indeed seem to encapsulate such concepts, Hamada the picture is the very opposite of bleak and depressing — live-wire Zaara sees to that pretty much single-handed. A charismatic and effortlessly amusing young woman and a dream find for any documentarian, she spends most of the pic's running time learning to drive (a laborious process) or seeking a job, the latter despite having very few qualifications and almost no experience. Zaara may seem like a bit of a cutup, but underneath her bubbly exterior there's an admirable streak of indomitable persistence — one which pays off in the pleasantly satisfying final moments.

By this point, Sidahmed has succeeded in his quest to reach Spain, only to find that "everything is horrible" there; he's evidently too habituated to the distinctive rhythms and special atmosphere of the Tifariti camps and, like most of his fellow Sahrawis, he's never really known any other practical home, even though his heart lies many miles away on the Atlantic Coast.

Working as his own cameraperson, Dominguez Seren (who also co-edited with Ana Pfaff) brings a sympathetic outsider's perspective to bear on a locale whose setting is one of considerable rugged beauty. The film combines patient, sensitive ethnographic observations with a streak of wry and off-beat humor, and the result is the kind of ostensibly "small" production which lingers in the mind long after noisier affairs have faded into oblivion.

Production companies: Momento Film, in co-production with ma.ja.de Filmproduktion, Sveriges Television, DR, Fuglene AS
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Eloy Dominguez Seren
Producers: David Herdies, Michael Krotkiewski
Editors: Eloy Dominguez Seren, Ana Pfaff
Composer: Kjetil Schander Luhr
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (First Appearance Competition)
Sales: Deckert Distribution (Leipzig, Germany)

In Arabic
89 minutes