Libya documentary puts female footballers in spotlight

A documentary on female Libyan footballers offers an intimate portrait of women living in a time of war and sets their stories against the fading dreams of the country’s Arab Spring.

Freedom Fields | A woman plays football in the streets of Tripoli

It’s night-time in the Libyan capital Tripoli and a group of footballers in silhouette kick a ball about. Look more closely and you realise the figures are women, and their pitch is floodlit by the car headlamps of their supporters due to a power blackout. It’s one of many striking scenes in “Freedom Fields”, a documentary debut from British-Libyan director Naziha Arebi, which explores the lives of three women footballers in post-revolutionary Libya.

The film is a vital, energetic portrait of Libyan street life, an intimate view of a country’s disintegration, and a portrait of how a team of female footballers became accidental activists in their own right.

Libya had female footballers before 2011 and the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. But, because “there were no international matches, they would train but they never actually got to play,” Arebi told FRANCE 24.

Her film focuses on three of the national team’s characters -- Halima, Nama and Fadwa -- and follows them around over a period of five years, from 2012-2017. We see them battle with the Libyan Football Federation to be allowed to train again, dealing with blackouts and online abuse, and watching their own civil war play out on Facebook. We see Halima help pick out her sister’s wedding dress -- women in Libya can seemingly play football or get married but not both -- enjoying ice-cream and cracking jokes about Gaddafi by candlelight. Halima, the joker of the team, is studying to be a doctor. Fadwa, the most outspoken, at one point gives up on football and marriage because she feels she shouldn’t have to choose one over the other. “Too many restrictions,” she says, only to return to football a year later.

Many women played prominent roles in the Libyan revolution -- leading protests, spying for the rebels and smuggling weapons. So in 2012, in a sign that a post-Gaddafi Libya would bring further liberation for women, Halima exercises openly in the streets of Tripoli while the national football federation allows women to resume training.

Yet as the months go by and the country slides into civil war -- the crackle of gunfire is never far away -- the women come under increasing pressure. A Facebook campaign seeks to ban them from playing and threats from the Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia multiply.

For the women’s “own safety”, in 2013, the Libyan Football Federation decides to ban the team from travelling to Germany for its first-ever tournament. “Gaddafi said we would suffer and he was right,” says one family member. “Libya is a prison,” says another.

A year later, in 2014, and Halima is stopped by gunmen at a checkpoint as she’s traveling to a football training camp in Cameroon. She has no business being out in public without a male chaperone, Halima is informed, and she must turn around and go home.

It’s not about religion, it’s about culture,” said Arebi.“It’s the same system of power. The same patriarchal structures. And it’s always the young that suffer, and the normal civilians that suffer."

By following the women’s stories, the film offers an alternative, intimate narrative to the usual news coverage on Libya. Instead of focusing on migrants, extremism, or even on former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s alleged kickbacks from Gaddafi, the film looks at forgotten parts of Libya’s conflict. The women don’t hail from the Libyan elite -- they come from different tribes and backgrounds and from all over the country.

Nama comes from Tawergha, considered a Gaddafi stronghold during the 2011 uprising and a scene of fierce fighting which virtually emptied the western Libyan town of its inhabitants. Her family joined the ranks of tens of thousands of internally displaced Libyans. Until recently she lived in a camp in Tripoli, which has now been demolished, leaving her living in a makeshift shelter as she helps raise her brother’s child. When gunfire breaks out, as it often does, the women update each other on the battle by text -- reminding us of the forgotten conflict between the Zintanis and the Misratis.

But amid the despair, there are moments of contagiousjoy. In 2017, when the team scores their first goal at their first international tournament in Beirut, Halima lets out a whoop of delight. When she is depressed, a fellow team member rouses her with the words, “Libyans are born unlucky,” and they erupt laughing. The film is shot through with wit and dark humour. The women roll their eyes at threats from the extremists, and laugh at their fear of women “exposing their legs”.And there’s no shortage of solidarity between the women. When Fadwa is reprimanded by the football federation for defiantly speaking out to a journalist, her fellow footballers gather protectively around her. “We are all Fadwa,” they chant.

Arebi plays with the film’s lighting deliberately. “There are moments,” she explained, “when you don’t know if the lights are being cut because people don’t like you playing or if there’s a power cut. So there’s always this constant thing of not knowing, being physically in the dark and metaphorically in the dark.”

Power cuts were just one of many challenges Arebi faced during filming. It was hard to get people to relax on camera in public amid the rising paranoia of the deteriorating security situation, fighting would break out nearby, and cash machines failed to function. After five years of filming she eventually whittled 300 hours of footage down to a 97-minute film. Her camera works as a member of the team. There is no voice-over as she follows the women around.

At the end of the film, Fadwa is shown leading a sports NGO which works in orphanages, schools and refugee camps. And in a rebuke to the idea that a woman must choose between tradition and freedom, Halima announces she is getting married, while carrying on playing football.

“When a family gives her daughter hope they give her everything,” says one of the rare men who offers the women a pitch to play on. “Freedom Fields” is the first Libyan film made by a female Libyan director. Arebi was unable to show the film publicly in Libya because there are no cinemas in the country.

“Despite these warlords and militias doing what they’re doing, there are still people trying to carve out a space in which to make a better country,” she said. “And as long as there are people like them, I still have hope.”

“Freedom Fields” is showing in Paris’s Luxor cinema on June 6.

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