The Act of Activism: Filming with Tripoli's Graffiti Artists

Graffiti, a short film made as part of the Tripoli Stories at our workshop with the British Council in Libya, is premiering at the Sheffield Doc/Fest. Here's the making-of, written by co-director Ibrahim El Mayet.


It's day two of our week-long documentary film making workshop at the British Council in Tripoli; drawing inspiration from the previous day’s sessions with the professional film makers from the Scottish Documentary Institute, we were tasked with creating our own short documentary films.

The subjects had been selected from the previous afternoon's brain storming session and we were divided into teams with a director, director of photography (DOP), sound recordist, and editor. Our editors were whisked away to learn the basics of Final Cut Pro editing software while the rest of the team prepared to set off to research our three respective subjects: Tripoli museum, local fishermen and revolutionary flag makers.

Having been assigned the job of sound man on the flag project I was given a crash course in operating the sound equipment and radio mics, introduced to the concept of 'sound design', and tasked with collecting sounds. What we hear in film is just as important as what we see on screen the clinking of a tea cup, the rustling of a flag, the sound of the environment or 'atmo' sound such as passing traffic or the dull buzz of a fridge (which is often only noticed in its absence) must all be recorded and used to create a natural ambiance.

If the lesson from day two had been the importance of preparation, the lesson for day three was adapting to the unexpected. The museum team were having trouble getting access to the museum without permission to film, the stormy weather kept the fishermen at bay, and we were a man down. A new project and a reshuffle of personnel were required. So it was that I found myself battling the Tripoli traffic on route to Fashloom (a district in Tripoli) with my co-director Anas, cameraman Siraj and sound man Ashraf to meet Mohamed, a local graffiti artist.

street.jpgThe walls of Tripoli are no longer bare. The city's walls are adorned with slogans and art, an outpouring of expression after 42 long years of oppression. Two major themes can be seen in Tripoli's street art; ridicule of the former Libyan leader Gaddafi who was a figure of fear for decades, and celebration of our hard won freedom. While some offerings are crude and others highly sophisticated the art form is generally met with approval from Tripoli residents.

Throughout the Libyan uprising, the Fashloom district was heavily contended. The early defiant actions of members of the Fashloom opposition in February 2011 registered on the regime radar, and their retribution was severe. Gaddafi's security forces had the city under siege, fear and mistrust were widespread, and it was difficult to know who to trust. Even the simplest act of opposition such as speaking against the regime or displaying Libya's tricolour independence flag would risk arrest, torture, and even death.

It was under these conditions that Mohamed and others like him began to show their defiance and exert their own pressure on the regime through their anti-Gaddafi graffiti. Mohamed told us how in the beginning it was impossible to work together in groups, they had to work individually and undercover. He started by using coal or chalk, writing slogans one letter at a time checking constantly to make sure no one was watching. He then began using spray paint, but there was no time for art, he would just spray and run. As time went on he grew in confidence and would attempt to tag increasingly sensitive sites striking right at the heart of the regime.

flags.jpgAround Tripoli, many activists expressed themselves through their Graffiti. Regime loyalists also took to the streets spraying slogans in support of Gaddafi, their offering was exclusively in Gaddafi's favoured colour green. In fact buying the red and black required for the tricolour independence flag often aroused suspicion and trying to buy all three colours would have likely resulted in arrest. It was only after the liberation of Tripoli in August last year that Tripoli's graffiti artists could spend enough time at the walls to go beyond slogans and share their vision.

Later that day Mohamed took us to the burnt-out remains of a beautiful Italian-era building in the heart of Fashloom which had been a police station. During the uprising the building was greatly feared by local residents. It had been taken over by prisoners released by Gaddafi who bought their loyalty and charged them with punishing members of the opposition. Mohamed showed us a small outbuilding where up to 40 captives were held in a room of no more than five square metres. Inside, graffiti etched onto the wall depicts what happened to members of the opposition who were caught. After being arrested, they would be taken to trial where even if they were acquitted by the court, regime forces would pick them up outside the court house and take them to the dreaded Abu Salim prison where they would be tortured.

camera.jpgDespite his experiences, Mohamed is remarkably positive and prefers to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past. It is his hope that they can turn the burnt-out shell of this former police station into a cultural centre for the local community to support the arts engaging and educating young artists. 

Day four and five of the workshop were spent filming with Mohamed. The fifth day was the highlight as Mohamed was joined by some members of his group who came equipped with their paints to continue working on the walls of what they hope will one day be the Fashloom cultural centre. As we filmed them
at work in the heart of the city on this bright sunny day, I was struck by the public reaction. Some people showed great interest, even inviting the guys to come and decorate the walls of a school, others gave a passing glance, some took no notice at all, but no-one showed any disapproval.

After three days with Mohamed and his fellow artists, it was time for Nasr, our editor, to put his newly acquired skills with Final Cut to the test. The final two days of the workshop were spent back at base at the British Council. This is the business end of the process! With nearly two hours of footage and a
character and story that were so engaging, choosing what to use was difficult. Short documentaries are challenging. Working on a three-minute format, it is a challenge to deliver a complete story which will be engaging and understood by the audience while maintaining integrity and remaining true to the subject
and the character.

editing.jpgThroughout the week I was impressed and inspired by the technical ability and creative flair of my peers. Libya has a wealth of talent which has begun to surface since the previous regime’s tight control of media in Libya has been broken allowing Libyans to express themselves freely for the first time.

Having been through the process of making a short film, I now have a much deeper appreciation for the level of skill and creativity required to be a professional documentary filmmaker. However, with the increasing accessibility of technology and online platforms like YouTube, the media are accessible to amateurs in a way they had never been before. There will always be a place for professional filmmakers, but today’s enthusiastic amateur could be tomorrow’s professional filmmaker.