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Victoria Film Festival Interview - "Stolen" directors Dan Fallshaw and Violeta Ayala

Stolen - At Victoria Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

“We, that is Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw, travelled to North Africa intending to make one film only to discover a hidden truth that takes them on a journey we could never have imagined. Initially set against the Sahara in the Polisario governed refugee camps, the film turns into a political thriller when the black Saharawis start talking about a forbidden subject… Their freedom.” Directors Dan Fallshaw and Violeta Ayala on the film “Stolen” which is screening at this year’s Victoria Film Festival.

Is this your first film at the Victoria Film Festival? Tell me about your festival experience, and if you plan to attend Victoria for the film’s screenings.

It is. Unfortunately we won’t be attending.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background, and what led you to the industry.

Dan: I grew up in Australia and come from a heritage of photographers and have always had the need to create. I had to my first art classes when I was 5, I learnt the piano and the flute. I went to university after high school and studied science and became a teacher but missed having a creative outlet and then studied design with a focus on photography and video. As with many Australians after university I spent a few seasons in Whistler where I trained with members of the Canadian snowboard team. I’ve lived and worked in England, Germany and Italy in the broadcast industry. I’ve performed in the theatre most of my life. In 2005 while working at SBS Television I met Violeta when auditioning for a play she was directing. Within months we decided to make our first film together, and the rest as they say is history. Stolen is our first feature film and we plan to make many more.

Violeta: I am from Bolivia, from Cochabamba, a valley in the middle of four mountains that happens also to be at the heart of South America. I used to be a theatre actress and in 2003 I moved to Australia to be close to my father. He's lived in Sydney for the last 25 years. I couldn't speak much English when I got here but was fortunate to get a place at Charles Sturt University. During my second year I took a subject called Media Production and as soon as I saw an editing suite, I was hooked. I spent the next two years shooting random images and putting them together at night, discovering new ways to express myself. I am a writer, a story teller and a traveller. I believe in change, I believe in humanity and filmmaking has given me the tools to combine my passion for telling stories, my spirit of adventure and my dream to make this world a fair place.

How did this whole project come together?

Dan: It took us almost four years to make “Stolen”. We finished it last July and the work hasn’t stopped yet! The first time Violeta and myself traveled to North Africa to make our first film together, Between the Oil and the Deep Blue Sea, we met a woman from the Saharawi refugee camps and she told us she hadn’t seen her family for 30 years because of the conflict between Morocco and the POLISARIO. It sparked our interest, so we researched the issue and found out the UN organised family reunions for the refugees and thought this would be a good way to tell their story. We submitted the idea to Screen Australia and on a small amount of funding both of us traveled to the camps to start making the film.

A year and three trips later we discovered something we couldn’t have imagined, that slavery was still affecting the lives of the black Saharawis. After realising the seriousness of the situation we were in and that the POLISARIO were keen to get their hands on our tapes we decided to hide them. We were detained and had to leave Algeria. We were lucky to find someone who could smuggle the tapes out of the country to Mauritania.
In getting the tapes back we were drawn into the story and realised we’d have to become part of our own film. Getting the tapes back was the mid point of shooting Stolen, not knowing if we would get them back we thought we might have to start the film from that point. In trying to get the story out we traveled to the UN in Geneva and New York. We filmed in Paris, Spain, Western Sahara and Australia. We didn’t plan much and followed our noses going where we thought we needed to go.

We spent a year editing Stolen. It was a tough process making all the elements work as a whole. Stolen has 5 layers, there’s Fetim’s reunion story, there’s the story of slavery, there’s Matala’s journey, there’s our journey as filmmakers and then there’s the backdrop of the politics between the POLISARIO and Morocco. The last layers we worked into the film was our own story and the political situation. We interviewed ourselves and from that, we developed the narration. Some of the original interview is actually in the film. We avoided getting too into detail with the political situation between the two sides including enough to give context for the story.

It was an absolute miracle “Stolen” was finished. We faced so many obstacles, during the shoot, to post production and even after the film was finished and the opposition it has attracted because it deals with slavery.

Violeta: Dan and I been in Mauritania making our first film together. It's the next country south from Western Sahara, which is the territory at the heart of “Stolen”. My dad had told me about a territory in the Sahara where people speak Spanish. We were in a little town called Chingetti and a woman approached me and told me in perfect Spanish, about the conflict over Western Sahara and that she lived in a refugee camp and hadn't seen her mother for thirty years. We were intrigued and while we were in Italy finishing our first film we decided we wanted to go back to the Sahara to make a film in the Polisario refugee camps.

In mid 2006, I came back to Sydney, wrote the first treatment, got $5000 for development funding and just enough money for 2 flights to the camps. We then went to the Sahara for 10 days and little did we know that next three and half years would turn into a rollercoaster.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

Dan: Violeta and I shot almost all of the film. When it was just the two of I would use one camera, but on occasions like buying the camel we’d both shoot, which worked extremely well and we have a great scene in the film because of it.

The film was shot on HDV, most of it on a couple of Sony A1s, we took a Z1 and an extra cameraman on one of the shoots. We shot the film in a very personal and intimate manner, we could never have made stolen with a crew. The shoot we took a crew the limitations were obvious and we knew we had to do the remainder of the film ourselves. We used a variety of video and even used footage from a small point and shoot digital stills camera.

The desert is extremely harsh on the cameras with fine dust jamming everything that moved on them.

Violeta: Dan and I did a lot in the film, we wrote, directed, co-produced, filmed it. Dan edited and did all the graphics, posters and so forth.

It was an organic process; we started by shooting with one camera and then in our second trip we had two cameras and someone else shooting for us but the film really happened in the third trip, it was only the two of us with the two small HDV cameras. While Dan was doing most of the shooting, it became obvious that I had to start shooting too. It was scary to shoot when it isn’t one of my strengths, but somehow I pulled it off.

Out of the entire production, what was the most difficult aspect of making this film? Also, what was the most pleasurable moment?

Dan: Being detained in Algeria and leaving the tapes behind was a tough moment during the shoot, not knowing if we would ever get them back. Traveling to Western Sahara driving the length of Morocco was pretty scary not knowing what could happen.

On a personal level, giving Fetim the opportunity to meet her mum for the first time in 30 years., meeting Matala and his friends again in Mauritania, and getting the tapes back in Nouakchott.

On a creative level, when we’d have success in the editing process; making a scene work and then getting the film’s structure right so the story would flow, and working with John McDowell and then putting the music into the film and seeing it work brilliantly.

Violeta: We went to the Sahara to tell one story but discovered something completely different; people living in slavery to this day. That was a challenge in itself. We went there believing in a cause and before long our ‘hosts’ were after us and the people we were talking to, we were all in trouble. We were detained and had to hide our tapes in the desert and hope someone else could smuggle them out of the country.

The film takes place in the middle of a political battle between Morocco and the Polisario, two governments that wanted to hide what we discovered. Both took their turns trying to stop us finishing the film. We had to deal with Moroccan secret services. In Morocco twenty hours of our footage was stolen and swapped for blank tapes. For 18 months it was just the two of us, our little cameras and no back up, with the Polisario and Morocco breathing down our necks.

Since we finished the film the Polisario and their supporters have run a well-resourced media campaign to discredit the film, going to extreme lengths to try to stop it. This is very hard for two independent filmmakers, it feels like David vs Goliath. It is sad and extremely frustrating that we are not able to communicate with all of the people from the camps and really find out what is happening to them.

One of the best moments was when the black people decided to share their stories with us, they believed in the power of our little cameras. They had hope that by telling their story it would mean an step closer to freedom.

I have experienced the best and the worst of the human kind by making this film, realised how dirty politics are and who holds the power in this world. I have grown a deeper admiration for people like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Mohamed Ali, Rose Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcom X and Che Guevara. Powerful humans that have challenged the status quo.

Trying to put together the film, which contained five layers of story, was difficult. It took us a year of editing and more than 50 screenings in New York and Sydney to get the narrative of the film to work. But when it did work, it was a magic moment.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

Dan: Watching films like Darwin’s Nightmare and Born into Brothels inspired me to make films that affect the way people think. Dennis O’Rourke was a big reason I even considered making documentary films. His film The Good Woman of Bangkok inspired and showed me you can make films that make us question ourselves and the societies we live in.

As well, George Lucas for proving you could remain independent and Steven Soderbergh for always doing something new.

How has the film been received at other festivals or screenings? Do you have any interesting stories about how this film has screened before?

The POLISARIO who control and govern the refugee camps where Stolen was shot aren’t happy about the film at all because it uncovers slavery. They have sent people to all the festivals Stolen has screened at to protest and object to the film. For the world premiere, in Sydney they flew one of the main characters all the way from Africa to say that slavery doesn’t exist, that we paid her to talk about slavery and that we work for the Moroccan government. This was extremely confronting for us and for Fetim who had never left North Africa in her life. She traveled all that way to watch herself on the big screen. The media had a field day with the story, which made frontpage news in Australia’s biggest newspaper. Fetim only got her passport weeks before she traveled to Australia.

It was obvious what was going on and the audiences got behind the film. In Toronto the audience booed and shouted down the protestor, saying he must be from the POLISARIO. In Amsterdam the host for the Q and A asked the audience to put their hands up if they believe slavery exists in the camps and Western Sahara, everyone except the protestors put their hands up. In Warsaw they understood exactly the political repression presented in the film.

Violeta: The opening at the Sydney Film Festival was testing. Can you imagine, walking into a sold out cinema, just after finishing the film, we hadn’t sleep for the last week and one of the main characters Fetim was there? Not to support but to denounce the film! The Polisario flew her from the Sahara without her children to say that slavery didn’t exist. Cameras all over, a protest, it was so unreal that we had to recut the film to include it at the end as an epilogue.

I was happy to see that Fetim was fine and it was heartbreaking to see her laughing and enjoying the film and not being able to give her a hug. Every screening is challenging, the film creates debate and that is our aim, to provoke thought, to generate discussion to hopefully create change. The Polisario sends people to every screening.

There was a memorable moment on the opening night at TIFF, when the Polisario man started with his accusations, a big rat ran across the stage, it was poetic. Then the audience asked him to shut up. At IDFA, in the middle of a discussion with the Polisario envoy trying to discredit the film, the moderator asked the audience to raise their hand if they believe slavery exists and everyone in this huge theatre put their hands up. Victoria will be the first screening of the film without us present so I am a bit nervous, but I know the film can speak for itself.

If you weren’t making movies, what other line or work do you feel you’d be in?

Dan: Something creative.

Violeta: I think I would be telling stories. I think if I go back to a thousand lives ago I was probably a storyteller. I would be writing and performing.
For many years I wanted to be Bolivia’s president, I come from a very political family, my grandfather was one of the founders of the indigenous movement and communist party in Bolivia. When I saw how dirty politics can be I realised am better off challenging the status quo through my films.
Lately everyone says I am super funny so I might try my luck as a comedian.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

Dan:The media has a responsibility that I think it is neglecting at the moment. With the changing boundaries of how we access the media and the shrinking of newspapers and big new organisations the pressure on journalists to provide stories even quicker and cheaper is increasing and as such they’re loosing something. What I think is happening today is that documentary as a genre is becoming more influential, as they become more accessible. Films like Half Life (1985) by Dennis O’Rourke, or Darwin’s Nightmare (2005), by Hubert Sauper are becoming more and more prevalent. Just this year alone there was Videocracy, Stolen, Google Baby, The Cove, Crude, The Shock Doctrine, Bananas and Burma VJ, to name a few. All of these films are investigative in nature and do something to look behind the surface of pressing issues that face us today. This is troubling to governments and corporate organizations who may not be as ethical as they should be, because these films are made independently. Videocracy, Stolen, the Cove, Bananas and Burma VJ all faced very strong opposition from governments or corporate organizations. With independent films not having much money we need the media for so many reasons, in particular to raise the issues so the general public can support and get behind these films.

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. In the case of Stolen we got a lot of coverage in the Australian media, due to the fact that the POLISARIO was able to cast doubt on the film in the media. Many people heard about the film without seeing it, and for a documentary that is rare. In terms of raising the issue of slavery Stolen is successful because people know about it, but as yet there has been no change in policy or for the people still living in slavery. Stolen will screen at 7 festivals around the world this Feb/Mar and many more in the coming months. For things to change for the black Saharawis, the media have a huge role in getting the story to the general public. Media are extremely important in the distribution of documentary film.

Violeta: As they say the media can make it or break it. They have a lot of power and responsibility, they are essential in the life of independent films, so please keep writing about important films that don’t have the budget for publicity. So far STOLEN had great reviews and some bad ones too.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

Violeta: Few years ago we were at a screening at the Tuchinsky Theater in Amsterdam and I wished that one day one of my films would play there. As I wished STOLEN played there this last November.

If you could offer a nickel’s worth of free advice to someone who wanted to make movies, what nuggets of wisdom would you offer?

Dan: Don’t ever give up. It’s harder to make a film than you could ever imagine. Make a film about one idea. Have a clear idea of what you want to do. Making films should never start with the notion ‘I want to make a film.’ It should start with “I want to tell a story about xyz.” Being a filmmaker means you have a wonderful set of tools to tell a story. Pictures, sound and music all combining to do something magical.

Violeta: I believe that there is no better way of making films than finding a team of people with the right chemistry, working together in very different ways, to find the moment were magically everything seems to work and the transformation of a concept/idea into a film begins. There is a lot of trying in the process, it takes hard work and time to develop and grow together, to achieve the right mixture of elements that will end up becoming a film.


What do you love the most about film and the filmmaking business?

Dan: Being able to go to places and meet people you otherwise never would. I never would have traveled to many of the places we went to with Stolen if we weren’t making the film. Meeting the people we did like Fetim and Matala.

I love the variation in the roles you have in filmmaking. Filming is about collaboration it’s physical you work hard and get dirty, editing is an art form where the attention to detail is paramount and distributing is something else all together. It’s always interesting and you never get bored. You have to have many hats when you’re a director. At the end you have something that is powerful and effects people and something you’re proud of. Getting to work with brilliant people.

Violeta: I love the filmmaking and I hate the business.

A question that is easy for some but not for others and always gets a different response: what is your favourite film of all time?

Dan: Today it’s different to yesterday. But today it’s Gomorra, no… It’s Pulp Fiction or maybe Delicatessen. Docs: Burma VJ, Darwin’s Nightmare. Run Lola Run is pretty good today as well.

Violeta: Too hard; City of God, Pulp Fiction, El Cyrano de Bergerac, Love me if you dare, Taxi Driver…it depends of the time of the day and my mood…

As for documentaries: Darwin’s Nightmare by Hubert Sauper. I was freaking out when I send a copy of STOLEN to Hubert and few weeks later I received a very supportive e-mail, I felt blessed. Born into Brothels is such an amaizing story, I loved the music and when John McDowell the same composer accepted to work in STOLEN I felt blessed again.

This is one of the many films playing at this year’s Victoria Film Festival. For showtimes and further information visit

Be sure to follow instant happenings of the festival and updates on my Twitter @jasonwhyte!

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 01/30/10 04:46:33
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