Adelphi faculty and alumni venture to North Africa to document the Saharawi, a once-nomadic people who have lived in a refugee camp since 1975.
Life moves at a slower place in Camp Boujdour. There is a strong, proud sense of community as friends and neighbors, united by a common past, share what they have with each other. But conditions are challenging. Electricity, cellphone service and Internet connections are scarce. Showers involve pouring water over your head while standing over a bucket. Severe sandstorms spring up regularly. Although the camp has schools, a hospital and some small shops, it is reliant on the United Nations for food and water.
Such is the scene described by three Adelphi University alumni—Enas Elmohands ’14, Bec Everett ’13 and Lara Hnizdo ’13—who visited Camp Boujdour in 2014. The camp is home to the Saharawi, a once-nomadic people who were forcibly removed from their land in the Western Sahara in 1975 by the Moroccan government. They have lived in refugee camps in Algeria, just across the border from Western Sahara, for more than 40 years, while struggling to regain their land and their independence.
The team of alumni, led by Cindy Maguire, Ph.D., now acting associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, traveled to Camp Boujdour and spent 10 days interviewing the Saharawi people about their ancestors and their collective history. The resulting footage became the award-winning documentary When the Sun Came for Them.
The film sprang from a partnership between Dr. Maguire and Terrence Ross, a professor of communications at Adelphi. At the time, Ross was searching for collaborators for Shared Roots, a nonprofit website he founded that is dedicated to sharing ancestor stories. “I wanted to go to a place where memory is everything,” said Ross.
Dr. Maguire had just returned from ARTifariti, an annual arts festival held in Camp Boujdour. Her experiences, and her descriptions of people who hold their collective memories dear, made her an ideal partner for Ross’ project.
Ross’ original intent was to create a series of short videos for Shared Roots by interviewing the Saharawi people about their ancestors. With Dr. Maguire, he recruited the three alumni to serve as the film crew: Elmohands had attended ARTifariti with Dr. Maguire in 2013; Everett had already planned to attend the festival in 2014; and Hnizdo had worked with Ross in other classes.
Armed with just two iPads, solar chargers and some basic sound equipment—most of it on loan from the Adelphi communications department—the crew spent 10 days in Camp Boujdour seeking out specific stories of Saharawi ancestors. Prior to arriving at the camp, the team spent six months learning technical skills and discussing how to approach the interviews. “We wanted to gather stories about the Saharawi heritage, their pasts and, if possible, get specific details about particular people in their families,” said Hnizdo.
This objective proved difficult at first, prompting frequent discussions among the crew. “Our first responses were not as nuanced as we wanted,” Everett said. “Each night we discussed better questions to ask to get the responses we wanted.”
Personal stories emerged eventually—the woman who raced camels as a young girl and always won, the man whose father was a poet—along with detailed descriptions of Saharawi customs, celebrations and hospitality. But a communal story also became clear, revealing the truth about the atrocities committed against the Saharawi. “A lot of the refugees wanted to talk about their struggle as a people,” Hnizdo said. “They want the world to know they exist.”
When the footage made its way back to Ross (who was unable to travel to the camp himself), he found that the original plan for short clips would not work. “The war gave the film drama, and it turned into a feature,” Ross said.
Creating a feature film added several new layers to the project. Ross tracked down music by Saharawi singer Mariem Hassan to score the film and found Arabic actress Salem Hadeed Murphy to provide an authentic opening monologue. He also relied heavily on Mohamed Sulaiman Labat, the translator who had worked with the crew in Camp Boujdour, to help translate the Saharawi dialect into English.
When the Sun Came for Them was completed in the fall of 2015, and Ross submitted it to film festivals around the world. It has received numerous international accolades, validating the hard work of the crew and encouraging them to keep telling the story of the Saharawi people. Elmohands captured this sentiment well, noting, “The awards are important in that more people are becoming aware of the Saharawi struggle for determination.”
Awards and screenings
Human Rights Silver Award, World Human Rights Festival, Jakarta
Special Jury Award for Excellence in Filmmaking, Barcelona International Film Festival, Barcelona, Spain
Award of Merit, World Documentary Festival
Award of Merit, World Film Awards
Certificate of Merit, New York International Film Festival
Merit Award, Docs Without Borders Film Festival, Delaware
When the Sun Came for Them has also screened at the TrueDoc festival in the Ukraine and at the Barcelona Planet Film Festival.
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