DESERT PHOSfate is an experimental documentary film by Sahrawi artist Mohamed Sleiman Labat. It weaves through the story of phosphate, exploring the multi-layered narrations about connections to land, sand particles, plants, human and mineral displacement. The film explores ways of telling about realities, metaphors and poetics in the desert. It highlights connections between ecological justice, colonial practices, environmental violence, traces of anthropocentric mineral extractions, and the loss of indigenous ways of knowing and telling about the world.
This film and story are told from the perspective of a Saharawi artist. It doesn’t attempt to follow conventional western film methods or structures, Saharawi artist Mohamed Sleiman hopes to tell this story in a different way. The film is based on narratives and philosophies rooted in the Sahrawi way of living. It’s important to bring up indigenous ways of telling stories with metaphors, dream telling and fables. Such poetic and nonlinear methods from the Sahrawi perspective can better tell the story of the Sahrawi.
PHOSfate is a poetic rhyming combination of phosphate and fate referring to the fate, destiny, current and future impact of phosphate on the Saharawi community, on global economies and global ecosystems.
Sleiman Labat’s film consists of five chapters of different lengths and points of view, they do not follow any logical or chronological order but they somehow randomly connect and reconnect at some point or another. This nonlinear method of narrating is the artist’s way of decolonizing his methods of telling the story. By incorporating elements from his surroundings and context, he is basing his story on elements from his life. The chapters inconsistency resembles the sandstorm rhythms; it builds up and collapses several times, then it roars loudly again before it winds down to a deathly silence and then back to roaring again. And that sets the tone for the entire film.
This chapter explores the different rhythms observed and experienced in the everyday life of the Sahrawi people. It sets the tone for the pace of life in this desert and how people receive it, process it and respond to it.
Desert rhymes can vary dramatically. From the roaring life-threatening sandstorms to moments of silence and stillness, and everything else in between. The artist is interested in painting a picture about what happens in the desert. He observes such rhythms, for example, in everyday practices like people and camels walking, in the pace of the tea ceremony rituals as well as other visual and sound scrapes present in his surroundings.
The different rhythms in this chapter work as a template, they build up and collapse, just like the sandstorm rhymes setting the tone for the next five chapters of the film.
This chapter in the film explores a special moment that tells about the reality of how the artist, and his community, experiences the heat. The truth is that there isn’t much that we can do when we reach such extreme heat levels. In the peak hours of the heat, we lay down and try to get some rest. In those moments, all I could hear was my heavy breathing…
The crazy heat is a very dominant chapter in our lives. And due to changes in the climate, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to cope with, the elderly and the sick are even more vulnerable.
For a while I was thinking how best I can capture such a moment and a chapter in our lives. In the end, I settled on a black screen with a short text reading:
“It’s +50 Degrees Celsius, I can’t work in such conditions”.
The heat is a chapter in my film because it’s a chapter in our real lives.
This chapter brings together diverse voices from the Sahrawi community. They tell about their stories, encounters, practices and experiences through different methods ranging from storytelling, metaphors, dream telling and scientific explanations. This chapter also spans many generations, including testimonies recalled from the Sahrawi nomadic life in the 1930s and 1960s to the current life in the refugee camps and so much in between. Some characters speak about personal stories, some about societal changes, and others about grand life philosophies in simple yet compelling and unique ways. The Sahrawi people had a long history of nomadic life, but we no longer live as nomads, we now live in refugee camps because our community has been driven out of our homeland. Today’s life in the camps comprises new and different practices, including the surprising element of farming! Sahrawi agricultural engineers and farmers discuss and share their knowledge and solutions as they attempt to grow food in the challenging conditions in the Hamada Desert where pressing environmental factors are making it difficult to farm, but the farmers are making their own local adaptive solutions and strategies. The film brings up the poetics of juxtaposition. On the one hand, we can find in the old narratives, stories about how phosphate came into the story of the Sahrawi people. Phosphate discovery in Western Sahara attracted different colonial powers to the region which led to the exploitation of the natural resources of Western Sahara and consequently the expulsion of the Sahrawi people from our homeland. In the new narratives, we can find new knowledge being developed by the Sahrawi in the new context. The Sahrawi have no agricultural background, but they are now developing site specific knowledge of how to farm without the use of processed phosphorus. The family gardens in the Sahrawi community enrich the soil using local nutrients and fertilizers prepared locally from animal manure and food leftovers. It’s still very challenging to make the gardens succeed year round, but we have definitely managed to grow some food for some months. Family gardens are strong expressions of community resilience.
Weaving through the different narratives from our family personal history to community collective memory to philosophical views on how we should live on this earth and what is it that really matters after all, this chapter paints a colorful picture of who the Sahrawi are, told by the Sahrawi themselves, in their own words and unique ways of telling.
Note: We will add the rest of the chapters soon
Taleb Brahim: A Sahrawi agricultural engineer and researcher who developed and organized the family gardens in the different camps. He now runs Algaada Center for Agricultural Research, an independent center he recently established in Samara Camp where he experiments and develops solutions for the different farming models in the camps. He has recently been appointed National Director of Agriculture in the Sahrawi Ministry of Economic Development.
Yaugiha Mohamed: studied animal ecology in Algeria and then she returned to the refugee camps. She now runs her own experimental garden and Shekwa Project in Samara Camp. She is also a member of Saba Cooperative, she advises and helps people set up their gardens and help them develop solutions for different challenges they face.
Menaha Mahmoud: is a grandmother, a storyteller and narrator of the Sahrawi history in the community. She lived most of her life as a nomad in Western Sahara. She is living now in Samara Camp together with her family of daughters and sons. She’s a great host and a source of wisdom.
Mohamed Salem Mohamed Ali: A farmer, a filmmaker and a creative talent who runs the Nomad Garden, an experimental garden in Samara Camp. He works to develop a mobile garden where he can sell fresh produce in the local market. He is an intern in Algaada Center, he assists Taleb Brahim with the different activities on the experimental site. He hopes to gain more knowledge about agriculture and Permaculture as he works closely with Taleb Brahim.
Sulaiman Labat Abd: Grew up as a nomad in Western Sahara and when the war broke out, he ended up in the refugee camps in Algeria. He narrates a lot of historical accounts from the past nomadic life of the Sahrawi. He is keen to share his knowledge and testimonies about life in Western Sahara. His narrations, stories and testimonials are in the archive of Motif Art Studio for art and research purposes. He has collaborated with me for example, he performed the voiceover for some of my films, including The Year of Balls, Chapter Four of this : Desert Strawberries. He is now devoting more of his personal time to record, document and preserve the Sahrawi history and the oral knowledge and traditions of the Sahrawi people.
Fatimatu Said: A mother and a craftswoman, she used to weave and make textile works of carpets and rags. She also worked as an assistant to the Sahrawi students abroad. She now lives in Samara Camp with her family.
Mbarka Aggyn: Is a Sahrawi drum artist and music teacher. She teaches music and drum and other traditional instruments in the local school of Boujdour Camp as part of Desert Voicebox – organized by Sandblast Org. We collaborated on creating the drum pieces in this film based on the varying rhythms observed by the artist in the desert.
Original Title: DESERT PHOSfate
Duration: 58 minutes
Film Director: Mohamed Sleiman Labat
Co-producer: Pekka Niskanen
Filming: Mohamed Sleiman Labat
Voiceover: Sulaiman Labat Abd
Sound Designer: Juuso Oksala
Editing: Mohamed Sleiman Labat
Drum Artist: Mbarka Aggyn
Music Recording: Saluan Radio, Samara Camp
English Translation: Mohamed Sleiman Labat
English Translation Proofreading: Matthew Galloway
Available Subtitles: English, Spanish
It received funding from:
Kone Foundation, Helsinki, Finland
Arts Promotion Centre Finland
Oskar Öflund Stiftelse Finland
Special thanks to:
Algaada Centre for Small Scale Agriculture Research
The Nomad Garden
And to the different families practicing farming in Samara and Layun camps.
Screenings of DESERT PHOSfate :
Forum Box Gallery, Helsinki, Finland
Research Days, UniArts, Helsinki, Finland
Supermarket, Stockholm, Sweden
Te Tuhi Art Gallery, Aotearoa New Zealand
School of Regenerative Agriculture, Copenhagen, Denmark
Stockholm City Film Festival, Stockholm, Sweden
Arcada University of Applied Sciences, Helsinki, Finland
Museum of Impossible Forms, Helsinki, Finland
Moss Farm on the Marsh, Wisconsin, USA
Municipal Cinema (Culture Scapes 2023) Freiburg, Germany
Joensuu Film Club, Finland
Tulsa Arab Film Festival, Oklahoma, USA
Greenmotions Film Festival, Freiburg, Germany
CultureScapes Festival SAHARA 2023, Basel, Switzerland
SAE Greenhouse Art Lab & Agroecology Works, Switzerland
Culture of Care-Not Culture of War, Bienne, Switzerland
FiSahara Film Festival, Madrid, Spain
ARTIUM Contemporary Art Museum, Vitoria, Spain
Hastings City Art Gallery, Hawke’s Bay, Aotearoa New Zealand