Wilaya: Berlin Film Review

Berlinale Film Festival
Spanish-Sahrawi drama meanders more than it moves.

From "Salt Water" director Pedro Perez Rosado, the film centers on a family of Spanish-speaking Sahrawi, a stateless, mixed ethnic population inhabiting the deserts of Southwest Algeria.

Despite its strong setting and heartfelt message, the Sahara-set drama Wilaya is too slight and slow-moving to draw most viewers toward its intriguing subject matter. Centered around a family of Spanish-speaking Sahrawi – a stateless, mixed ethnic population inhabiting the deserts of Southwest Algeria – this minimalist, well-shot effort from Pedro Perez Rosado (Salt Water) should continue its fest run after landing the Best Actress award at Abu Dhabi (where it was known as Tears of Sand). Theatrical pickups outside Spain are less certain.

As the opening title cards explain, Wilaya of Smara is a refugee settlement of displaced persons who, following the Spanish decolonization of Mauritania and Morocco, settled in large numbers (estimated at up to 400,000) in the Western Saharan desert. Caught in political limbo (an independence movement is still seeking statehood) and largely self-sufficient, they survive under harsh tribal conditions and remain more or less cut off from the outside world.

Wilaya follows the story of Fatimetu (Nadhira Mohamed), the daughter of Sahrawi parents sent to live with a foster family in Valencia while her handicapped sister, Hayat (Memona Mohamed), and traditionalist brother, Jatri (Mohamed Moulud), remained behind in the refugee camp. Following her mother’s death and a break-up with her Spanish boyfriend, she returns home for the first time in years, expecting to remain only temporarily until she’s slowly – very slowly – swept in by local ties.

Featuring terrific widescreen cinematography by Miguel Morales (Solitary Fragments) and a captivating score by Sahwari singer Aziza Brahim (who plays a neighboring widowed mother), the film boasts enough technical prowess to capture the muted, semi-nomadic lifestyle of its characters.

Otherwise, writer-director Rosado fails to deliver the dramatic goods, dishing out plenty of dead air and never providing an emotional catharsis for Fatimetu, whose internal ties to both Spain and the Sahrawi are suggested at but not quite felt. The fact that she spends the film’s latter half as a self-employed driver provides numerous opportunities to explore the rich desert locations, less so to develop the narrative.

Performances – especially by the two Mohameds – feel lived in and realistic enough, but with only minimal dialogues and far too much silence, the viewer has to spend a lot of time reading between the lines.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Production companies: Wanda Vision
Cast: Nadhira Mohamed, Memona Mohamed, Aziza Brahim, Ainina Sidagmet, Mohamed Moulud, Jatra Malainin Mami
Director-screenwriter: Pedro Perez Rosado
Producer: Jose Maria Morales
Director of photography: Oscar Duran
Production designer: Carlos Ramon
Music: Aziza Brahim
Costume designer: Wanda Morales
Editor: Ivan Aledo
Sales Agent: 6Sales
No rating, 97 minutes