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a film by mohamed sleiman labat

2023 ǀ 58 min ǀ Documentary





Pekka Niskanen and Mohamed Sleiman Labat follow in their artistic research project the multi-layered story of phosphate in the Baltic region as well as in the Sahrawi Refugee camps in Hamada Desert. The project deals with phosphate and its effects on two vastly different environments. Small scale family gardens started to emerge in the Sahrawi refugee camps in the Hamada Desert, southwest Algeria around 2002. Leading figures in the process are Sahrawi agricultural engineers and gardeners who have been researching and developing the garden practices together with the families. The theories and practices have become rulebased knowledge in the community.


Gardens and agricultural knowledge are starting to change the food production for Sahrawi refugee community where dependency on international aid has been the case since the arrival of the Sahrawi to the refugee camps in 1975. Earlier the Sahrawi were pastoralist nomads in Western Sahara. Phosphate mining is the reason for Sahrawi’s losing their nomadic way of life and phosphate has reshaped the Baltic Sea marine ecosystem over a half century. The phosphorus fertilizer made of the distant phosphate rock in Western Sahara has ended up to Baltic Sea as well.


The mined phosphate rock used for fertilizers in agriculture has increased the phosphorus fluxes to marine areas threefold. The excessive use of processed fertilizers on farms is causing eutrophication. It is most evident in the form of cyanobacteria blooms, especially in the summer, sometimes also as traces in the frozen sea. The algae get their nutrition from phosphate and nitrogen fertilizers. Finally algae will die in the sea. Dead algal blooms absorb oxygen from the water and sink to the bottom. This causes oxygen depletion in large areas of the Baltic Sea. Significant oxygen loss leads to death of fish and marine life.


In his film, DESERT PHOSfate, Mohamed Sleiman Labat is asking “What is a Sahrawi story?” How do the Sahrawi tell their stories? Where’s the beginning, the middle or the end of the story, If they ever use that structure at all? The nonlinear methods of telling a story largely weave their path through the story in a randomized manner. The methodology of randomness is not logical, it’s poetic and it’s unique.


It’ll be hard to recognize this kind of narrative because of the overwhelming flood of stories we get exposed to online; films and videos that are short, cut in a quick paced manner, overloaded with visual and audio effects all aiming at eating your mind up. There are different kind of stories in this world that don’t resemble Hollywood philosophy and the Western pace of life. Stories and methods that sooth and heal, stories that educate without attempting to convince or convert you into something else. They don’t want to play with your mind.


Sleiman Labat’s film consists of five chapters of different lengths and points of view, they do not follow chronological order but they somehow randomly reconnect at some point or another. This nonlinear method of narrating resembles the sandstorm rhythms; it builds up and collapses several times, then it roars loudly before it winds down to deathly silence and then back to roaring again. And that sets the tone for the entire film. 


The exhibition has been supported by Kone Foundation, the Arts Promotion Centre Finland and Oskar Öflunds Stiftelse.

To organize film screenings, artist talk, reviews or invite us to your film festival or art event, please contact us here! 

the year of balls

A film by mohamed sleiman labat

2019 ǀ 10 min ǀ Documentary
Film Poster

The Nomadic community in Western Sahara has lived in the desert for centuries, moving from place to place with their camels and tents. They have a long tradition of oral knowledge; poems, stories, desert wisdom and the Nomadic Calendar. 

The Nomadic Calendar is not numerical; it is a poetic way of expressing time, documenting the history and storing knowledge. The Sahrawi nomads gave names to years; the names are from events that happened in each year. The Nomadic Calendar passes on knowledge crucial to navigating the desert; the knowledge covers a wide range of references to history, geography, plants and community personalities. 

Sahrawi visual artist Mohamed Sleiman Labat has been collecting and documenting these orals and using them in his arts. He explores the collective and micro history of his community through various interviews, stories and testimonies. Through his relation with his father Sulaiman Labat Abd, who narrates his stories and memories and tells about ‘The Year of Balls’, one of the years in the Nomadic Calendar, he tells a personal account of family history.

In 1957/58, the French and the Spanish jointly launched air strikes against different nomadic communities in the northern parts of Western Sahara. The air raids were systematically aiming at eliminating the nomads’ cattle, camel herds and goats. Sulaiman Labat; Mohamed’s father narrates the events and what he witnessed in ‘the Year of Balls’. The nomads did not know about bombs or planes. When they saw the bombs, they called them balls. Killing the camel herds’ means ending the means with which the nomads could pursue the nomadic lifestyle. With no camels, a huge number of the nomads are left with no means to support their families, and therefore pushed to move to the city and are forced to be in the system. Some nomads speak of ‘Putting us into the system’ this is known historically as the process of registering the Sahrawi and including them in the Spanish civil system in different cities along the coast of Western Sahara. 

The Year of Balls tells about part of the colonial history in Western Sahara from the perspective of the Saharawi nomads, and the systemic transformation of the Saharawi community, the history of violence, and the loss of valuable knowledge and practices. The Saharawi experienced a significant change through the multi-layered complex of colonial history.

The story of the Year of Balls and the process of forced dislocation highlights a colonial method to end a lifestyle that has been practiced in Western Sahara for millennia. 

The Year of Balls won the second award in FiSahara International Film Festival in 2019. 

To organize film screenings, artist talk, reviews or invite us to your film festival or art event, please contact us here!