Crossing a desert for dates

By Harry van Versendaal

“European women are not beautiful. They have small noses,” jokes an African woman watching a Western soap opera with her friends in Bilma, an oasis town in northeast Niger. There is a lot in Belgian director Nathalie Borgers’s latest film to suggest that everything in life is relative. But, again, there’s even more to suggest it is not.

“Winds of Sand, Women of Rock,” which was screened this week at a packed theater at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, follows three women of the Toubou tribe, in south Sahara, as they undertake their annual, 1,500-kilometer on-foot journey across the desert to collect dates and earn money for their families. Domagali, Amina and Mariama must guide a caravan of children, camels and goats through extremely inhospitable terrain braving draught, heat and sandstorms.

Looking back on the exhausting and perilous three-week journey, Borgers, a striking figure in her mid-40s, keeps no secret of her admiration of these female nomads.

“I was struck by the self-empowerment, their capacity to resist different things like their social system, the patriarchal structure, the adverse environment,” she said during an interview with Athens Plus in the northern port town. Borgers flew to Thessaloniki from Paris, where she has lived for the past 10 years, to present her documentary which is screened here as part of the festival’s Africa section.

Living in a culture where men are camel breeders, while they are reduced to their household routine, the annual caravan is these women’s only chance to break a rather suffocating, male-dominated pattern. In a place where camels are the measure for all things, women are apparently worth just half the price of men. The strenuous path to Bilma is also a path to economic independence, pride and self-confidence. Money collected from the dates will allow them to feed their families for a year and they can spend some of it to treat themselves some with some womanly stuff like new clothes and jewelry.

But first they have to get there. We watch them walking in the desert, taming the rebellious camels, praying, cooking, educating their kids, resting. And then back on their feet.

Beautifully crafted (excellent panoramic landscape shots – kudos to director of photography Jean Paul Meurisse), the movie also does a good job in exposing the women’s daily stresses and hopes. Amina dreams of a less arduous life in the city, while Mariama, who has run away from her husband whom she married in an arranged wedding, wants to go back to school and become a nurse.

Were the Toubou women as interested in the Belgian as she was in them? “Probably not,” Borgers said, describing how the protagonists were rather skeptical of the pant-wearing female crew members. “They don’t understand why we dress like men. They just don’t get it. They don’t envy us that much. They want to have a bit more comfort in their life, material comfort, but they are not so eager to look like us in any way,” she said.

Few would blame the Toubou women, however, for having felt a bit envious under the particular circumstances. The mainly-Austrian crew was traveling in five cars and a truck so that they could carry their 1 ton of equipment, which included everything from film cameras and lights to coolers for the rolls of the film. Despite previous agreement, the nomads were soon tempted to rid themselves some of the load.

“We said: ‘Sorry but this is our deal: We do our thing, you do yours. If we start doing this [helping you out], we will no longer be filming what this is for you,’” Borgers said.

Involvement with the subjects is a very delicate issue for doc makers but in a few rare cases the crew found it hard to resist. “If someone got sick and we needed to run or when there would be a delay because of us and they were lacking water, then we would give some to them. But that only happened once or twice,” Borgers said.

“It’s not 100 percent pure in that sense. It is a complicated situation because you have more means than they do,” she said.

This is where bourgeois guilt usually kicks in with the privileged western observer. Although Borgers couldn’t help it when she first visited the place in a Jeep to do research before the actual shooting, the uncomfortable feeling gradually faded.

“You can hardly feel bourgeois when you do all that work. We carried a lot of equipment but we hardly carried any equipment for ourselves. We had one cook with us but there was not much to eat anyway. Nor did we have better conditions to sleep. We were in the heat, working as hard as they did.”

“Winds of Sand” is an interesting, even inspiring movie. But is it a feminist one?

“In a way I would say ‘yes’ but it’s not made in a holding-up-your-fist kind of fashion,” Borgers said.

”For me it’s more like ‘let’s look at these women, see what we can learn from them’. I don’t know if this is feministic.”

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