x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Javier Bardem talks about his latest film projects

From a James Bond film to a documentary that premiered at the Berlinale, Javier Bardem continues to make his mark on screen.

The actor Javier Bardem.
The actor Javier Bardem.

While film journalism requires concerted efforts made at all times to remain cool, collected and completely unaffected by big-name stars and major blockbusters, occasions spring up every now and again that put these endeavours to the test.

"I've just been shooting James Bond in London. We finished for the day about 30 minutes ago, and then I called you," is such an example - a line offered by one Javier Bardem down the phone that proves almost impossible not to get just a tiny bit excited about.

Little has been revealed about Skyfall, the 23rd 007 and the third outing for Daniel Craig due for release in October. With the film hidden behind the usual Bond veil of MI5-level secrecy, among the carefully managed pieces of information revealed so far is that Bardem is playing the main villain in a plot that will ignore anything that happened in Quantum of Solace and see Bond's "loyalty to M [Judi Dench] tested as her past comes back to haunt her".

"The story is very solid," says Bardem. "There's nothing light. It's very strongly put together."

No stranger to playing the antagonist, having deservedly picked up the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for No Country for Old Men in 2008, Bardem claims his latest baddie is - thankfully - cut from a different cloth than the terrifyingly emotionless cattle gun-wielding hitman Anton Chigurh.

"He's a different kind of guy," he says. "But we do different movies, we try to pretend that we are different people. Sometimes we do and sometimes we fail."

Thankfully, pretending to be someone else wasn't a concern for Bardem in Sons of the Clouds, a documentary that premiered at the Berlinale in February.

This year's festival, a notoriously politicised event at the best of times, was predictably heavy with features relating to the Arab Spring. But with Sons of the Clouds, which was produced by and stars Bardem, came a film highlighting an Arab conflict that has remained out of the limelight.

As claimed by Noam Chomsky in the documentary's opening scenes, the Arab Spring did not, as widely held, begin with the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, but the protest camp in Western Sahara that began in October 2010. The month-long protest, involving an estimated 5,000 local Sahrawis, was aimed at bringing to public attention the discrimination and human rights abuses inflicted against the local citizens in a disputed territory that has been under Moroccan rule since 1979.

But while western governments were quick to respond to the various uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, little was said or done about Western Sahara, a situation that - barring the occasional call for negotiations - hasn't changed in more than three decades. And it's this situation of international abandonment afflicting a people of under 500,000 that Bardem, together with his Spanish director Alvaro Longoria, set out to understand and, hopefully, bring to a wider audience.

"There is always something that brings the media attention, the political attention. But with Western Sahara, because they've chosen to have a peaceful resistance, they are always at the back of the list," says Bardem.

Choosing Berlin for the film's premiere was - intentionally or not - somewhat symbolic. It was there at the famous 1884 conference where the European colonial powers took their rulers to Africa, carving up the continent and sealing the fate of the Sahwaris, a nomadic people who suddenly found their land now divided by empirical borders.

At the time, Spain was awarded the area known today as Western Sahara. But when independence came in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania quickly laid claim, as did the Polisario Front, a liberation movement which had been pushing for an end to Spanish colonisation and wanted the land for the local Sahrawis.

By 1979, however, Morocco had virtually annexed the whole region and soon began construction of the 2,700km sand wall that now separates their area from the parts controlled by the Polisario. And this is how it has largely remained since, with the Sahrawis in Morocco-controlled Western Sahara under strict rule with allegations of human rights abuses and torture (even raising the Polisario flag is banned), and those on the other side of the wall living in refugee camps.

The UN has called Western Sahara the "last African colony", and its 1991 call for a referendum in which locals could choose between independence and integration with Morocco has been repeatedly sabotaged.

Bardem, who says he "has seen the political effects in my family since I was born" (his uncle, a director, was jailed and his mother was "almost persecuted by Franco's regime", which only fell in 1975), claims the Western Sahara issue is one very present in the minds of most Spaniards.

"Of course, we feel especially responsible, and Spanish society is doing lots of things to help the Sahrawis, but the government hasn't done anything because of its blind marriage to Morocco."

He himself was spurred into action having been invited to the Sahara Film Festival, an annual event that has been held in one of the refugee camps since 2004.

"When you have an emotional experience with something, that changes your perspective," says the actor. "After I spent time with the Sahrawis, we all came back saying 'enough' and 'what can we do?"

In the end, Bardem and Alvaro Longoria - who produced Steven Soderbergh's Che in 2008 - did what they know best: make a film.

Sons of the Clouds - the result of four years' work - tells the story not just of the Sahrawis, but of Bardem's journey as he attempts to understand the situation and the reason why it's been ignored by so many politicians. With lobbying from Morocco (estimated in the film as costing 3.5 per cent of the country's GDP) influencing the major political players in the US and France, Bardem - someone perhaps not used to having his requests refused - struggled to find people willing to talk.

"For them, saying 'no' says a lot about how people don't really want to deal with this conflict, the hot potato," he says. "It's not that they don't care, it's that they don't want to look at the other side because it's a shame on them."

But with the film, an expertly crafted lesson in history and diplomatic chess, the hope is that more people will talk about Western Sahara. "The aim of doing this movie is to bring international attention to the issue, and make the situation known outside Spain," says Bardem. "What we really need to stop right now is the human rights abuses in the occupied territory."

Bardem's involvement obviously helps bring exposure to the film, which will be showing at many other festivals. "If we make any money out of it, it will all go directly to the Sahrawi people in the refugee camps," he adds. "But beyond that, the goal is for it to be seen by as many people as possible."

Bardem and Longoria will be taking Sons of the Clouds to the Sahara Film Festival this May, something he says will be "a very special moment", and there are also plans to bring it to the Middle East.

There is one event, however, where it's unlikely to be screened.

"I don't think we'll ever be invited to the Marrakech film festival," he laughs. "But that would be great, a really good gesture from them. Because at the end, Morocco is not thinking about themselves, it's not helping them."

aritman@thenational.ae

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