Javier Bardem knows that when celebrities trumpet humanitarian causes, like his devotion to refugees in the Western Sahara, the public generally has a cynical reaction. It’s just that he doesn’t necessarily think that’s fair.
“My question is: These people who are throwing those knives, what are they doing?” Bardem told HuffPost Entertainment in a recent interview. “First of all, I think they may be doing it for the right reasons. But even if they aren’t, they are doing something. In the end, it’s about doing something because we are too lazy. We are comfortable.”
To get out of his comfort zone, Bardem produced and narrated the new documentary “Sons of the Clouds.” The film — which premiered at the 2012 Berlinale in February and is available now on iTunes, with a larger VOD rollout to follow on Nov. 6 — focuses on the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, which has been controlled by Morocco since 1975. Despite a ruling in favor of independence by the International Court of Justice, Morocco claimed the territory for its own, forcing thousands of Sahrawis to live either under the thumb of the Moroccan government or in desert refugee camps on the other side of the border. According to such noted organizations as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, the Moroccan government has been repeatedly cited for human rights abuses in the Western Sahara.
Bardem had been aware of the Sahrawi plight since his youth because of the region’s connection to Spain. It wasn’t until he attended the International Sahara Film Festival in 2008, however, that he was moved to take action.
“I didn’t have the experience of witnessing the situation,” he said. “That’s the purpose of the film festival. Everybody that goes there, and we know many people who have gone there, they all come back with the same feeling of attachment to the Sahrawis, and the question of what can we do about it.”
What the Academy Award winner did was partner with director Alvaro Longoria to research the situation. Eventually, their work turned into the documentary. “We thought, ‘Let’s do [the movie] for real,'” Bardem said.
For three years, Bardem and Longoria worked on the film, piecing together old footage (“A lot of material came from the Internet,” Longoria said, while adding that the difficult part was securing the rights) with new interviews. Unfortunately, while the pair tried to give “Sons of the Clouds” a proper balance, Moroccan officials refused to cooperate.
“We were disappointed more than surprised,” Bardem said. “We knew that it would happen, but we were shocked. From the beginning we thought we would get the Moroccan side. We had some conversations and negotiations. But when the whole thing blew up, and they wouldn’t speak to us, we just had to move around them. The fact that they didn’t want to speak is maybe a statement itself.”
Morocco’s disinterest in partnering with Bardem and Longoria wasn’t the only issue the filmmakers faced.
“The fact that it’s a touchy subject makes it hard to not only make the movie, but to finance it,” Longoria said. “There were people who were interested in the movie, but had to pull out. Spanish television was interested a couple of times, but didn’t want to participate for political reasons. This happened with a couple of other channels and partners. They said, ‘We don’t want to get involved.'”
That changed in early 2011, when Candescent Films and Lilly Hartley came aboard just as the film was in most need of some forward progress. Bardem called Hartley their “savior”: She pushed the documentary to completion, despite the stonewalling from the Moroccan government.
“She gave us an injection of support,” Bardem said. “There was a moment where, based on the rejections, we were not sure where to go. We really wanted to avoid doing one leg of the table, but that’s what they were pushing at us to do. But then we found our way around it, to make that part of the plot.”
While the human rights abuses in the region are well documented, the problem is the power the Moroccan government wields with other countries, including France and the United States. As a crass French ambassador to Morocco notes in the film, the country is like a girlfriend one stays with through obligation more than anything else. “We are forced to sleep with someone we don’t really like,” he says. For its part, the U.S. government has acknowledged the human rights situation in the Western Sahara; the United Nations, unfortunately, doesn’t have the power to investigate the infractions.
“The RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights have really partnered with us,” Hartley said. “We’re using the film and their help to create awareness. They’ve created an online petition and we’re trying to collect 5,000 signatures by the end of March, before the United Nations Human Rights Council again decides not to monitor human rights.” Last year, Bardem even spoke before the council; his speech is included in the film.
“The goal of this movie, since the very beginning, was for us to understand the situation, because on paper it’s so easy to fix,” Bardem said to HuffPost Entertainment. “The Sahwaris have the justice on their side. The United Nations, everybody is on their side, but the thing is not moving forward. As somebody says in the documentary, if we’re not able to fix this situation, how are we going to deal with far more complex situations in the world?”
While Bardem acknowledges that the conflict is “complex,” he still thinks something must be done. The alternative could be an increase of violence in an already volatile region.
“What makes the Sahrawis very special is that they really play by the rules. For 30-something years. When you go to those camps, it’s really shocking to see their strength on doing things the right way,” he said. “Of course, new generations are growing up and seeing themselves dying in the refugee camps and they go like, ‘I don’t think this is going to work.’ Now this is a very important moment how to not turn on the thing and make it violent.”
If “Sons of the Clouds” or Bardem’s status as Bond villain du jour in “Skyfall” can even slightly prevent that from happening, then according to the star, the documentary has done its job.
“We did the movie, always having in mind that the movie is what it is,” Bardem said. “It doesn’t change the world, but it’s also a good excuse to bring some attention to certain things.”
For more on “Sons of the Clouds” and the petition to end the human rights violations in the Western Sahara, click here.