"What is the story?" vs. "What is the film about?" – Libya, take 2

Following the success of our Tripoli Stories, British Council gave us the opportunity to return to Libya for a second time. This time we were due to run our workshop in Benghazi and make another three short films, Benghazi Stories. Unfortunately, the political situation there meant that we had to relocate the workshop back to Tripoli but with participants coming from Benghazi.


Benghazi is the second largest city in Libya and the bed of the revolution, with the first uprising against Gaddafi taking place there in February 2011. Ever since last summer’s election, various militia have been exploiting a certain political unrest, reflecting Benghazi’s disappointment with the election results and their representation in parliament.

Of course, the killing of the US ambassador only days before our arrival was a drastic turning point. Banned from Benghazi for security reasons, we had to re-organize the workshop in order to deliver those “Benghazi Stories”. Prior to our arrival in Libya, we helped organize a camera workshop and briefed the participants to start researching potential stories with their cameras.

Starting the workshop in Tripoli, we spent the first two days exploring these rushes from Benghazi, and we shared a number of inspiring documentaries, offering solutions to questions raised about characters and structures. We had 48 hours to get the lads of Benghazi to understand the difference between “What is the story?” and “What is the film about?”

benghazi4-for-web-320.jpgOnly by distinguishing these two questions can they know how to tell the story. That was my broken record for the duration of the workshop! 

The participants were delightful. They were so curious about storytelling and hungry for knowledge. Some of the films we shared with them, such as Alan Berliner's work, felt quite removed from the world they live in. But this did not stop their enthusiasm.

The group was divided into three production teams around three specific characters just needing to be contextualised in a story. Armed with a list of questions and suggestions to help them devop their ideas further, we waved goodbye to them for the next three days…or at least till we got a phone call telling us they were stranded at Tripoli airport, where the employees had gone on strike...

Fortunately, the industrial action only lasted for 24 hours, but it meant participants lost a third of their time to shoot their film, making every single shot all the more precious.


Meanwhile, we trained three young filmmakers from Tripoli willing to learn more about editing and act as editors on Benghazi Stories. We had plenty of time to dive into the art of storytelling and indulge with all sorts of challenging films, from hysterically funny Berliner’s Nobody’s Business to chillingly moving The day I will never forget by Longinotto. During the day we talked nonstop about documentaries, and at night we returned to our five-star jail to jog for a few miles within one room, or stretch our glutes to pilates.

The British Council had imposed a strict curfew on us to remain in our luxurious hotel, where all the foreign diplomats and businessmen stayed as well. Not my idea of safety, but it appeared that our previous hotel had been taken over by militia. People seem to disagree what kind of militia is good. To me, they are all young men with big guns looking for meaning in their lives…not so easy once peace has been declared.

Anyway, the lads returned with their rushes, and soon our editors had to start transforming dreams of a film into an actual film. The pressure was on, three shorts days before a public screening!

And voilà, another three stickers on our big trunk of films:

Poet of the Sea
The Driving Lesson
The Salesman

Our Benghazi Stories have more of a political punch than the previous Tripoli Stories, reflecting the identity of the city and its current preoccupations. During the three days of editing, another 15 people got killed during what was meant to be peaceful demonstration. It rested heavily on the mind of some of our participants. 

It is hard sometimes to trust that making films could be a contribution to building peace, especially when you are standing at an intersection of history and progress.

Your characters may seem ordinary: your sister learning to drive, or your cunning car salesman, or your fisherman-turned-poet. Yet we must remember that their stories represent a global shift we are all part of. The tension in balancing our own values and culture with the lure of modern materialism, economic progress and technology, that is the stuff that our dreams are made of!