‘Freedom Fields’ documentary puts Libyan women back on the world's cinematic stage
LONDON - Libya’s revolution in 2011 upended forty-two years of Muammar Ghaddafi’s rulership but the promise of greater suffrage for women never bloomed. As Naziha Arebi’s first feature film, illuminates on screen, the dust of a new climate of authoritarianism settled, one which sought to banish women from public life and prolong their silence.
As the gains Libya's women achieved in previous decades gradually rolled back, uncritical readings rose to the surface of international press, celebrating what was yet to happen. In print and on-screen, women were applauded for leading the revolution, which they no doubt participated in. However, cast typing of this sort barely scratched the surface of the hidden face of the struggles women encountered after Gaddafi’s fall.
Director and actor, Naziha Arebi’s colourful film, ‘Freedom Fields’, offers a rich and holistic reading of women in post-Gaddafi Libya as she follows members of Libya’s national football team between the years 2011 and 2017. Their simple dream to represent their country across international tournaments upends triumphalist narratives and exposes their lack of gender consciousness.
Arebi returned back to Libya in 2010, marking her first homecoming as she and her returned back to their ancestral land. Twelve months later, Arebi returned and picked up a camera to document life in a country that had for so long been isolated and cut-off from the world outside.
Arebi, half British half Libyan, captures what few before her have — the plurality of Libyan society — through the lens of ordinary youth which as Arebi revealed during a premier hosted by birds eye view film, took 6 months to track “like ghosts, they were”.
The team, initially founded in 1997, was revived following Ghaddafi’s removal from power but its fate remained precarious and training remained poor, in spite of the wealth of talents its members boasted.
The young girls and women Arebi follows, occupy centre stage, from start to end, whose personalities flourish as we begin to recognise how different and unique each is. The team and the sport they rally around, alongside the aspirations to see Libya rise up again, can also be interpreted as one of Libya’s few post-Gaddafi democratic spaces. Girls from diametrically opposed worlds — an engineer, medical student and internally displaced youth — are united by their love of sport and hunger to represent Libya at the local and international level.
Lack of public support, the biggest barrier that stood in their way, coloured even the attitude of families that were supportive — perhaps aware of the futility of any attempt to convert the masses that fought against these aspiring sportswomen, tooth and nail, and stood in the way of their aspirations.
The hope that football represented for women quickly dissipated while across the political domain women were carefully placed to head the ministry of health and social affairs as evidence of female empowerment in post-Gaddafi Libya.
Arebi’s emotionally laden film captures a cynicism that underlines Libyan humour which cuts right through the female demographic. The power of humour is encouraged on screen for its ability to communicate entrenched contradictions continuing to deny women the rights and privileges male counterparts are entitled to.
Football therefore serves as the perfect metaphor of the double-bind dilemma women in Libya, and elsewhere in the region, find themselves in. On the pitch, athletes were sexualised and scapegoated for moral decay while off pitch, their efforts to break free from patriarchal norms were repeatedly thwarted, largely by men but also women.
The team’s complicated relationship with the Libyan Football Federation holds up a mirror to the relationship society at large has with power, characterised by betrayal, conditional support and exploitation which culminates in explosive arguments during the teams first ever international match in Lebanon, 4 years after the revolution.
The optics of Arebi’s masterpiece carefully teases out the chaoticness of life post-revolution and the lion-hearted spirit of young females, hungry to grow and prosper, neither downplays or exaggerates the deeply conservative texture of Libya where patriarchy infiltrates society.
“It’s up to people to take what they want from it” Arebi Arebi told audience members when asked about the film message and framing, “films ought to work on these different layers” and later added that “it was never really about football”.
She spoke of moments of friendship, sisterhood, laughter and conflict and how she and the films protagonists became “friends for life. I’m not just a journalist that goes in and leaves” Arebi said commenting on her responsibilities as a filmmaker.
Overall, the film, at all its levels, provides a corrective to the stereotypes that plaster over the lived reality for women who from a young age are shaped to accept an inferior status in society.
Arebi’s laborious 7 year old project goes further in her analysis of post-Gaddafi Libya than male news commentators and observers. She brings to life a story about the unravelling of state institutions and how this was matched by the erosion of women’s rights and an attempt to prolong their silence or confine them to the shadows of their homes.
The final victory for the girls comes not after competing in international tournaments but after they walked away from the federation that betrayed them. A new chapter for them started after their departure and the creation of their own charity, Hera, using sports to facilitate healing and trauma relief to nurture, not crush the aspiration of subsequent female generations.
The film is back on tour across the UK across the months of June and July.