It’s tempting to feel skeptical about celebrities’ involvement with humanitarian crises, which can appear to be more concerned with generating favorable publicity for glittering A-list parties than with helping the people of Tibet or Darfur or Eritrea. But Javier Bardem has little to gain, and a fair amount to lose, in trying to focus international attention on the unsolved and seemingly unsolvable problem of the Western Sahara. That thinly populated patch of desert in northwestern Africa — which is not yet an independent country but not quite a colony either — is a tangled and painful piece of Cold War blowback that the major world powers have been eager to sweep under the carpet.
Since 2008, when he first visited the Algerian refugee camps where up to 150,000 Sahrawis — the formerly nomadic people native to the Western Sahara — have lived for more than three decades, Bardem has become a leading international activist on an issue that few in the Western world even know about, let alone want to touch. Right now Bardem is using the publicity platform provided by his villain role in the upcoming James Bond adventure “Skyfall” to spread the word about a much smaller project, a memorable and moving documentary on the Sahrawi crisis called “Sons of the Clouds,” which he produced.
To make a long and complicated story short, the Western Sahara (formerly known as the Spanish Sahara) was one of the last colonies in Africa until the Spanish military pulled up stakes and left in 1975, rather than face an impending Moroccan invasion. King Hassan II of Morocco, a major ally of France and the United States during the Cold War, was essentially allowed to conquer the territory and import Moroccan Arab settlers to displace and outnumber the Sahrawi natives, while the whole world pretended not to notice this blatant violation of international law. Algeria, which was both Morocco’s regional rival and an ally of the Soviet Union, became the sponsor of the Sahrawi exile faction known as Polisario, and from that point onward the whole problem became a poisonous proxy war between the great powers.
Eventually the Moroccans agreed to hold a United Nations–sponsored referendum on the Western Sahara’s future, but that agreement was made 20 years ago, and no election has occurred. The Sahrawi people have been divided ever since, with those who fled living in poor conditions in the Algerian desert, and those who stayed behind under Moroccan rule subjected to one of the most brutal police states anywhere in the world. (Human rights observers from the U.N. and Amnesty International have had to rely on eyewitness reports, because the Moroccans generally won’t let them in.)
I’ve met Bardem before, and he’s always a charming conversationalist, but it’s clear that he brings his A-game when talking about this issue. He met me in Manhattan, along with Álvaro Longoria and Lilly Hartley, the director and co-producer of “Sons of the Clouds,” on the afternoon of the film’s New York theatrical debut. (It will reach iTunes and other VOD platforms Nov. 13.) As Bardem is the first to admit, his international fame, impeccable tailoring and legendary good looks have so far failed to move the dial on the Sahrawi question. When it comes up, Algerian government ministers claim to be delayed in traffic, Moroccan ambassadors change their cellphone numbers, and French and American officials — the people who might actually be able to do something — don’t pick up the phone at all, even with a movie star on the other end.
We could sit here for an hour and talk about how Cold War politics are still screwing up the world, but I’m not sure our readers would appreciate that. Javier, there's an amazing story in the film about how you first became aware of this issue by going to this unusual film festival in the middle of the Sahara desert. Tell me about that.
In Spain, we are very aware of the situation, of this part of history, even though so many people have tried to cover it up. On a social level there's a lot of activism toward the Sahrawi crisis, because we feel responsible. There's a moral responsibility there. But I've never witnessed a real situation anything like this festival, where the purpose of it is to bring attention to this issue. And it's great, because you go into the desert and you bring the movies out there. It’s magical because you're bringing movies to people who haven't seen movies very often, and they are like amazed by it. So as a moviemaker it's a great experience. You understand the sense of what you're doing, which is to amaze the audience by storytelling, but that of course is not the main purpose.
You go there and you see many things. We're not speaking about situations you will find extremely dramatic in the sense of “I can't watch that.” No, you watch a whole society rebuilding something very strong out of nowhere, out of nothing, with only the feeling in themselves that they are right, and they have the right to belong to somewhere because they loved their homeland. And you see their strength and you see their sacrifice and their will to keep on doing it in the right way, following the rules. But also, you feel like these people are doing the right things and nobody's paying attention, so it's very frustrating. And of course they are the most beautiful people. There is a very modern society among the Sahrawi people. Women are equal to men, they believe in education. It really should work, and it could work as an example of many things on the Western society, I would say.
Then you come back and you want to do something about it, and that's why we started doing simple things like making TV spots and gathering signatures. Little by little, you are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people in Spain that are really very active on this, and then you get to a moment where it's like, "OK, we are knocking on so many doors that are not being opened, let's do a movie about it." And that's where we decided to turn the camera on. That was a long answer to a very short question! [Laughter.]
That’s a terrific answer. So did you really sleep in a tent with the Sahrawi people while you were there?
Javier Bardem: Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course. Everybody does that and it's not the most comfortable thing, especially if you have a very weak back. But again, you are going to a place where you are so well taken care of at every level: emotional, intellectual, physical, food, everything. But we thought, at least that was my case, we're not feeling for a second that they are trying to impress you or gain some influence over you or, what is the word, convince you of anything; it's just the way they are. And you have to keep in mind that that's something that they are creating out of nowhere. You see those people and especially those kids, and you see the land, you go, this is not right. What have they done wrong? They haven't done anything wrong. It was just that Spain let them down and Morocco took over and Morocco is doing whatever the hell it wants because it is the beauty queen of the United Nations. [Laughter.]
Lilly Hartley: That's a new one. I’ll have to use that.
Álvaro and Lilly, to get the two of you into this conversation, we can't possibly cover all 40 or 50 years of politics here, we’ll get lost. But maybe we can clarify things for Americans who don’t know anything about this issue. So two questions: How did these thousands of people wind up living in the desert in refugee camps, outside their own country. And why is Spain, in particular, responsible for this problem?
J.B.: Come on, professor. You've got 30 seconds, in English!
Álvaro Longoria: So in 1975 when Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, died, Spain was at a very weak moment in its political history and Morocco decided to conquer this former Spanish colony. This was against the will of the United Nations, but the Moroccans were very savvy in how they did it so that the Spanish essentially retreated. Then a war started, 20 years of war between Morocco and the Sahrawi people who resisted the Moroccan invasion. That ended with the Baker Plan [brokered by former Secretary of State James Baker] in 1992. They made a peace agreement that said the Sahrawi would have the right to self-determination, to decide whether they wanted to be Moroccan or to be independent, and since then Morocco has made every possible effort not to have the referendum take place. And in the meantime, the Sahrawi have split between those that have fled from the war into Algeria and those that are stuck in the occupied territory. And those that are stuck in the occupied territory are the ones that are suffering human rights abuse because nobody is protecting them. They are in no-man's land; here is no real authority and no one has responsibility.
And it might be important to mention to Americans that our country bears a strange piece of the responsibility for this too, because of the Cold War angle here. The conflict in Western Sahara was part of a bigger conflict between Morocco and Algeria, who were acting as surrogates for the Americans and the Soviets.
A.L.: Yeah, it was a mini-war between the two blocs, Soviet and American. But the real American responsibility has to do with the United Nations, because the U.N. is not supervising the rights of the population there, despite the fact that it is a U.N. mandate. And the Americans and the French and everyone else on the Security Council — that's their responsibility. They agreed to a peace plan that was supposed to protect the Sahrawi people’s rights and they just forgot about it.
L.H.: It's the only U.N. peacekeeping mission that isn't able to monitor human rights. That's one of the things we want to change with the film. We partnered with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights to try and change that.
People who see your film can learn more about the human rights abuses, but tell me some of the things that are happening inside Western Sahara.
A.L. The most dramatic situation is the fact that there's no authority. The police can do whatever they want. There are unfair trials to the Sahrawi population and discrimination and there's no way to report this. No NGOs are allowed in, there's no press allowed in the Western Sahara.
J.B.: There are many, many horrible things going on there. They can do whatever they want, there are no witnesses, there is nobody to report these human rights violations. Many foundations are doing things, trying to get into the area, and it’s very difficult.
Are you seeing some movement on this in the international community? Is anything changing?
L.H.: We're hoping. We screened the film at the European Parliament in Brussels in the spring and there was a lot of interest. We’re going to screen at the U.N. soon, and bring it to D.C. in the spring. With a film, we hope we can make some noise and create attention around it. It's a hard thing because the people there are not violent right now. People pay attention to where the fires are.
J.B.: As you say, there is the whole bad history of this conflict. Always there's something bigger and noisier than Sahara was and after 35 years the Sahrawi people are still saying, “Guys, what about us? We’re still here, doing a very peaceful demonstration of how to survive.” Nobody's doing anything, and in the meantime they [the Moroccans] are torturing their sons and daughters and mothers who were split apart many years ago. Nobody's doing anything. There's always something more important.
Javier, I'm curious about how and why you chose to lend your reputation and, honestly, your fame to this cause. I’m sure you know the things people will say: “What does a movie star know about geopolitics? In a couple of weeks he's just going to go back to Beverly Hills and drink Champagne.” You're putting yourself on the line here.
J.B.: Well, I'm from Spain, and I still live in Spain. And in Spain we are very activist in general. It's a society that I'm really, truly proud of. People go to the street and say what they need to say. Unfortunately, especially in these times, the people in power don't listen — but have they ever listened? But we have the right and the obligation to go out there and fight for what we think is right. That is in my nature. That is in the blood of my family. That is in me. I'm an actor but I'm not what I do as a profession. I am who I am, and I have the same right to say whatever the hell I think is right or wrong as you have or the guy downstairs has, as everybody has. And yes, you are criticized for it. But I think I was 12 years old when I realized that you are not going to please everybody, right? So you better think and do whatever the hell you want, as long as you are respecting other people's rights to express their needs and desires. I mean, it’s very frustrating to know that you are not going to be liked by everybody, but that's something that I guess everybody here in the room agreed on. So having that in mind, that it's a very universal truth, then you just fight for the thing that you think is right, and as a Spaniard this cause is very close to our hearts.
Spain has been in the headlines a lot recently. The economic situation is very difficult and the people have definitely been in the streets. Have you been involved with those issues?
J.B.: Yeah, definitely. It's a very hard, dark — I don't know if dark is the word — I think it's a very compelling and dramatic moment for Spanish people, for Spanish society, in many ways and in many terms. There are many things to worry about, but what I guess gives me the chills is the lack of future for so many young people, at least two generations. There are people that are very talented, very well prepared, and they don't know what they're going to do with themselves. That can create so much chaos and so much pain on every level, on the society, and they [the authorities] don't seem to care. To pay this terrible international debt by taking from the students and from the middle class, something is wrong, that is ridiculous. So, yes, we are all involved.
A.L.: The fact that we are living through a terrible crisis in Spain, or even in the rest of the Western world, cannot deter us from looking at people who are really having a problem, like having no right to a future, no right to live. We are suffering an economic crisis but they have generations of living dead, and it is partly our responsibility. We are taking politics and economics and putting them on top of human rights. That's wrong. That is greater than any economic crisis that we may suffer. And I think it's important to remind people of this.
J.B.: There are two issues here. There is the right of self-determination, and there are the human rights abuses. We want to create a little bit of a difference in the human rights aspect because as no diplomacy, no strategic concerns or economics should be on top of human rights or turning a blind eye to that. I say this because it has some connection to what you're saying: No crisis can hide the abuses of people being tortured, being killed, being raped. I mean we're talking major things here. As you said before, the Sahrawi are terminal victims of many other crises.
But economics is also a main point here, because the Western Sahara is a [potentially] rich country, with fishing rights and phosphate mining. Along with the strategic location of Morocco and the relationship that all the Western world wants to have with Morocco, as the entrance to the Arab world and the gate to Africa. Yes, it's always a problem to talk about the Sahrawi because they are less than 500,000, in a territory larger than France. So who cares? It's like, ‘No man, no — that is not the right answer!’ The right answer is that we have to care because these people are going through hell after many mistakes that we made, that need to be solved. When we put it on the page everybody says, “Yeah, this should be solved, it's very easy to solve.” But in practice, with the United Nations and France …
Right, it’s a different story. I’m curious about what you said earlier, that Sahrawi culture could become a model, particularly in the Muslim world, the Arab world. Do you see the potential for a democratic society to emerge in that place that would be unusual in that part of the world?
J.B.: Yeah, and sometimes you may wonder that's also a reason for them to be oppressed. There are so many – I don’t know the expression – so many “dark hands” here, there's so many reasons, so many dark hands. They are a very educated people, very open to different things. Most of them speak Spanish. You go into these tent cities and you may be expecting something else and you see great progress, on every level I would say. Is that also a reason for them to be oppressed, maybe?
You know, Álvaro and Lilly, it’s not surprising that you guys wanted to work with a big movie star on this project, that can’t hurt. But one of the things that's startling here is that even with the movie star on board you can’t get government officials, even in Morocco or Algeria, to pay attention to you.
J.B.: It took us so many years, but they refused constantly. So then we decided to put that as the plot. Their silence really says a lot, and their point of view is there in that movie, very obvious by the rejection. And as you were saying, it's impossible to get in the occupied land, in the Moroccan-occupied territory, without putting yourself in serious risk.
We had the opportunity to talk to many U.N. ambassadors, from many countries, indoors and off camera. They were all saying, “Yes, you are right, they are right, but we have our hands tied in many ways.” We are saying, “Okay, it’s your problem and it's your obligation to untie your hands and do what you are paid to do, which is solve diplomatic situations.” Not only in a diplomatic way, but to create a more healthy scenario, a good relationship. Even Morocco would be rewarded if they fixed this situation, because the way they're perceived indoors is not the same way they're perceived outdoors, in public.
Javier, I haven’t gotten to see “Skyfall” yet, but I wish I could draw some connections between you as a globetrotting activist in this film and you as an evil capitalist trying to outwit James Bond.
J.B.: I know! I play a very, very bad billionaire. I guess I could seem like a villain to so many diplomatic offices. I want to make them work their asses off, do what they have to do.
I imagine that guy would take a different approach to the United Nations.
J.B.: Oh yeah — you don't want that guy near the United Nations. [Laughter.] I don't think I would be allowed to come in with that blond hair. It would be very suspicious. It's been a great ride to play that role. It’s an honor and a privilege to belong to this movie, which celebrates 50 years of Bond films. And I think they did a great job of creating – somebody said this in a paper in London – a bulldog of a movie.
And apparently you also made the cut in Terrence Malick’s film “To the Wonder.” When I talked to you last year you weren’t even sure. You thought you might end up on the cutting room floor.
J.B.: Yeah, of course. And actually that’s not ever the reason why you do a movie with him. You never know what's going to happen. You don't know nothing. From the time where you take a plane, you know where you're going — in this case, that was Oklahoma — and you don't know anything else. You don't know where you're staying, you don't know who you're playing, you don't know who you're going to work with. You don't know anything and that's the fun part. There's no way, no moment where you try to make logic out of it. Otherwise, don’t do it; do some other movie.
I know we have to go. What’s the game plan for this film and the Sahrawi cause?
L.H.: After this screening in New York, we're opening Nov. 13 on iTunes and other digital platforms. Within the next day or two, the RFK Center will have a petition up where people can sign electronically to help honor human rights there. Hopefully we'll screen at the U.N. and then in D.C. in the spring, and then we’re hoping to take it to London and Paris.
So eventually, somebody in one of those governments is going to take your calls, Javier?
J.B.: [Laughter.] Well, maybe. Or maybe they’ll call me.
"Sons of the Clouds," the documentary on the Western Sahara crisis produced by and featuring Javier Bardem, will be available from Amazon, iTunes, VUDU and other digital platforms beginning Nov. 13.