By Lanford Beard
Updated November 13, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST
Sons Of The Clouds
Credit: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Javier Bardem has been through a lot of change since 2008. He won an Academy Award that year and reconnected with Vicky Cristina Barcelona co-star Penélope Cruz, whom he later married and started a family. One constant since 2008 has been Bardem’s untiring work on the documentary Sons of the Clouds, available on iTunes today. Joined by Clouds’ co-producer Lilly Hartley and director Álvaro Longoria, Bardem sat down with EW to discuss the passion project that he considers a matter of “moral and historical responsibility.”

The seed for the doc began just months after Bardem took home Oscar gold for No Country for Old Men. The actor attended the International Sahara Film Festival, an artists’ showcase that also highlights the struggles native Western Saharans, and met Longoria. As Spaniards, they were aware of the tent-dwelling Sahrawi people — a tribe of refugees left in limbo in the 1970s by former colonizers Spain and who are are still struggling for independence from Morocco’s abusive governance — but the reality and urgency of the struggle had been lost over time. “Sometimes we, the Western world, lose the perspective, we lose the scheme of things about what is going on because there are so many things going on at the same time,” Bardem says. “When you witness some of those [events first-hand], it changes completely. … I’ve seen and talked with people whose mothers have been raped and tortured and pulled apart. You see those eyes in front of you, and there’s no way you cannot be affected by that.”

Bardem and Longoria realized they, as artists, were uniquely able to tell the Sahrawi’s story to the world. Joined by Hartley, they began filming Sons of the Clouds. It was no easy feat, as journalists are barred from the territory, and the United Nations has no supervisory power there. Bardem admits he considered giving up many times. “We realized that, no matter how hard or how [cleverly] you try to sneak in, it’s impossible,” he says. But, “I thought that was a very, very basic chapter in the story that has to be told because it’s what going on now, as we speak. People get tortured, raped, put in prison with nobody knowing because [the Moroccans] don’t allow the presence of a United Nations mandate, and they don’t allow journalists. There are no witnesses. They are truly [on] their own.”

Calling dozens of leaders in Morocco and the U.N., Bardem encountered closed doors to which he wasn’t accustomed in his day job. No one would offer a counterpoint to their story, official or otherwise. Somewhere amid all this rejection, Longoria realized that the silence in and of itself spoke volumes. “There’s a saying in Spanish that you make of the weakness a virtue,” he says. “If we found an obstacle, we tried to go around it, and it would make us stronger. So we tried to approach it like that and never say we were beaten, even though many times we thought, ‘How are we going to get out of this one?'”

Though Bardem and his collaborators have achieved many successes, such as delivering an address the U.N., the film unflinchingly acknowledges that the Sahrawis’ story is far from over. “This movie doesn’t end with a premiere,” says Bardem. The filmmakers hope that today’s iTunes release will shore up support for a petition they’ve created with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights to finally effect U.N. peacekeeping forces in the Western Sahara. “The human rights abuse is something we want to focus on,” says Bardem. “There’s no political, economic, or strategic demand that has to [take precedence] over that. They really have to fix this situation now.”

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