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“Women of the Sand” the Human Scale of Global Environmental Change


Article by Andrea Swift, New York Film Academy Chair of the Documentary Program

“The desert teaches by taking away.” Arab proverb

In 2008, a study commissioned by the United Nations found that desertification is spreading at an alarming rate, largely as a result of human activity and climate change.  This domino effect of disappearing water sources and the loss of arable land ends in the consumption of trees and, ultimately, of built structures by shape-shifting sand dunes.

To understand what this means, it helps to understand the topography of deserts. All arid regions have an eco-niche fringe, a transition zone that separates deserts from areas with more water. These zones have fragile, delicately balanced ecosystems, a mosaic of interconnected microclimates that support vegetation and which reduce the effects of winds. People are drawn to these areas, along with other fauna. There they find the essentials to sustain life: water, edible plants and places for livestock to eat and drink. At the same time, the presence of camels, goats and humans can compact the soil substrate, making those areas less hospitable to plant life. This, in combination with global climate change, contributes to desert growth.

America had its first, serious exposure to the destructive synergy of weather patterns and human misuse of the land in the 1930s Dust Bowl on the Great Plains. Today, a similar process is seen in places that fringe the Sahara Desert such as Mauritania. The capital city of Nouakchott (population 800,000) itself has desert overtaking buildings on its outskirts. Migrating sand dunes increasingly cut off a 150-klometer road connecting Nouakchott with the city of Boutilimit (population 27,000). Both cities suffer economically due to desertification.

The enthralling documentary “Women of the Sand” – released in 2008, selected for the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – provides a cinema verité immersion into the nomadic culture that exists in Mauritania on these fringes. By and large, these are a people who consider the desert their freedom, as much a place of great beauty as where they spend their entire lives, which producer Richard Wolf brilliantly captures through the camera lens.

To anyone viewing the film (available on DVD) from a comfortable perch in the developed world, it takes a while to appreciate happiness in such a stark environment. The subjects’ possessions are limited to the thin fabrics that make up their tents and their clothing, camels and goats, and food implements that include small glasses used in tea drinking rituals. They appear unlikely to survive against the vast, shifting dunes of the Sahara – and yet they have over millennia. Their children have the option to leave for the cities, as some do. These women do not wish for that to happen, but that does not stop them from allowing their children to attend schools within their tribes. A laptop computer surfaces in the film, uncharacteristically hinting at the modernism that encroaches upon them inside their tents just as the expanding desert licks at the edges of the cities where modernism is more common.

Women of the Sand was produced by C. Litewski and Lucy Barbosa and directed by Richard Wolf. Women of the Sand is available on DVD. Wolf attended documentary school at the New York Film Academy. He also studied documentary production at the Global Village School, also in New York. Wolf’s other films – Dishonorable Killings, Behind the Veil, The Sisters of Ladakh and Destiny – often focus on the plight of women in third-world societies. As in Women of the Sand, he juxtaposes personal testimonies against imagery that illustrates the global context of their lives. Wolf’s films are imbued with an intimacy that is rarely seen in news reporting or within UN studies on macro trends on the regional, national and international landscape.

Andrea Swift bio:

Andrea Swift is Chair of the Documentary Program at the New York Film Academy. She earned her Masters in Fine Arts degree from Columbia University and was the executive producer of the “In the Life” documentary series for the PBS network, among many other credits. Her “nuclear folktale” DEAFSMITH was featured at the United Nations Earth Summit, won a Silver at the Chicago International Film Festival and took second prize at the American Film and Video Festival.


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