Looking at post-Qaddafi Libya through the eyes of female footballers
LONDON - “At times like this, it is really important to show alternative narratives from places like Libya,” director Naziha Arebi said before the screening of her documentary “Freedom Fields.”
The 95-minute film, a release stated, takes an intimate look at post-revolution Libya through the eyes of an aspiring all-female football team whose struggle to gain mainstream acceptance mirrors the broader challenges facing women in Libyan society.
The lives of three friends — Fadwa, the amicable player; Halima, the ice cream-loving goalkeeper; and the lean and determined Naama, an internally displaced person from Tawergha — are portrayed on and off the field.
Their stories are told in three parts. The first in 2012, a year after the revolution, a period marked by great hope for change, democracy and gender equality. The second in 2014 when the spirit of hope has been replaced with a sense of confusion and loss after the Islamic State established a presence in Libya. The last part, in 2016, describes the sadness of the Libyan people as they realise they are worst off.
The three women refuse to be defeated. They set up an NGO that works in schools, refugee camps and orphanages to promote sport and reconciliation. Fadwa said she hoped to go to France during the FIFA Women’s World Cup and Naama qualified for the Olympics.
The film begins with an eerie nighttime scene as headlights light a secret practice location during a power cut. The football pitch is like Libya with shadowy characters lurking in semi-darkness and nothing is as it seems.
When an Islamist group sends the team a communique ordering them to stop playing, a male supporter burns it.
The struggles with the Libyan Football Federation, which prevents the women from travelling to international competition because of security concerns, are eloquently portrayed and the women speak of their desire to represent their country.
At first, the players seem to have given up on their dreams; some have accepted marriage, others concentrate on their studies but one last opportunity presents itself and they pay their own way to travel to Egypt to compete as a private team.
After the London screening, Arebi pointed out that in Libya for everyone who wants to stop you there will be someone who wants to help you.
“Even though there were a lot of people who wanted to stop me making the film and prevent the women from playing soccer there were always people who wanted to help and that is something I wanted to show,” she said.
One of the most moving scenes shows a father, who has secured a safe training ground for the team, telling his daughter: “A girl can be different. She does not have to keep to the norm. When the family gives their daughter hope they give her everything.”
The women speak emotionally about their plight. In one outburst a player explains how the revolution promised freedom but life for women has not improved and religion has imposed greater limitations.
The fly-on-the-wall style is very effective but some of the scenes lack context. In the case of Naama, the viewer cannot fail to be impressed by her determination and courage but there is no background to the tensions that led to the destruction of Tawergha and forced her to flee.
Arebi, describing how she came to make the film, said: “I am half Libyan, half British. I grew up in the UK and felt quite robbed of my Libyan ties. I wanted to find out about Libya and went there for the first time in 2010.
“I heard of the Libyan women’s football team and I wanted to explore their stories. I thought this film would be finished in 2013. [It took seven years to make.] As a result of sticking around in Libya, it became something more nuanced and interesting, more reflective of Libya and these women’s lives rather than just a neat kind of sports film.”
The documentary can be summed up as a character-driven production that puts the lives of three women under the microscope. It allows them to speak for themselves and ends with a song of the powerful comments they made during the years of filming.
“They love that song and when they saw the film they were amazed at some of the things they had said,” Arebi said.
Arebi said she looks forward to a time when “Freedom Fields” can be publicly screened in Libya. This is impossible at present because there are no functioning cinemas but it will be shown at NGO and community screenings.