Libyan Stories: What’s up at the border today?

Throughout 2014 we’ve been working with sixteen graduates from the Tripoli Art Academy to produce 4 x 3’ and 4 x 10’ films for our latest set of short stories, this time from Tripoli, Libya. The core idea of the workshop was to introduce young filmmakers to a new form of storytelling that is less news based, encouraging them to develop a love for creative documentary. The majority of them already had knowledge of the industry and brought with them their technical skills and experience of working for local Libyan broadcasters. The training would enable them to explore the chaos of their country through creative documentary and to connect their artistic voices to the rest of the world.

Libyan Stories

The delivery of the workshop was due to take place over a period of seventeen weeks, from February to June. However, we faced many delays due to the unsettled political situation in Tripoli and only just reached the finish line in December. It has been a real challenge for the participants to keep going through moments of complete isolation, without any contact to us, and often to each other. With so much violence and chaos around them, it is sometimes hard to find the motivation to keep going, especially when creating short films.

It may seem insignificant compared to the bigger picture, yet our participants have already realised that the little stories they filmed nine months ago, already have a major cultural significance. For example, one of the films is called The Mosque and is about the first attack post 2011 revolution on the 18th century Ahmed Pasha Karamanli mosque. However, any real destruction was avoided and the filmmakers filmed the mosque in all its beauty.

Last October, a second round of attacks by religious extremists ransacked and destroyed this unique Sufi shrine. The mosque is now closed and will probably never retrieve its formal beauty, but the film will be its memory as well as the painful reminder that the situation in Libya continues to be lawless and the people of Libya are fighting over the very soul of their country.

With us not able to go into Tripoli, our partners British Council of Libya decided to risk bringing out four of the filmmakers to Tunis to finish the editing with us.

We travelled from Edinburgh to Tunis via Paris. Of course, no trip to that part of the world goes without at least one breathtaking moment. This time it was when we boarded the flight to Tunis...  A guy sitting at the back of the plane started shouting hysterically "In the name of Allah – we are all going to die!" He went on, half Arabic, half French that he will never see his children again. We all got scared; our imagination quickly bringing up images of getting blown up…people started scrambling out of the plane.  Two civilian policemen, sitting next to him, eventually removed him from the plane. It then all made sense that he was being deported…I guess he won himself a delay. Hate to think what they will do to him next time, in order to avoid such public panic.

"Some not so official checkpoints."

Meanwhile our Libyan boys were travelling by road from Tripoli to Misrata military airport – the only one functioning in the country, to fly to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, the only planes connecting them to the outside world. The road is very dangerous with many officials and some not so official check points.

Anyway, the real sticky point was at Tunis airport were they were held for 3 hours of search and interrogation. It so happened that Tunisia was going through presidential election that week and received official threats from IS.

Pre-Revolution, Libyan were big spenders in Tunis and very welcome. Now they are another layer of refugees and lately associated with illegal arms.

Anyway, thankfully, at 3am our filmmakers cleared security.

"They looked aged, skinnier and nervous."

We had not seen our boys for over five months and they looked aged, skinnier and nervous. It took a few days for them to adapt to a peaceful and plentiful environment (except for us bossing them around to get the editing done in the two weeks we had!).  Meanwhile the police and army presence in Tunis was building up to poll day but we could blissfully ignore all that by locking ourselves in the editing room.

Except we had one hard drive missing – the filmmaker had felt that the material was too sensitive to bring through airport borders, so a friend was due to drive to Tunis and bring it with him…. everyday we had different news about which militia was controlling the Libyan/Tunisian border. Everyday we started with the day with:

“What’s up at the border?”

One day it was the right faction for the friend driving; next day it was the wrong faction. Then the Tunisians closed the border all together. We never got the disk. That is one film yet to be edited ….sadly, if ever! 

All the films are now ready to be seen at festivals. They are tiny peepholes into Libya and if as many people see them as possible they will become oxygen to those filmmakers locked in Tripoli, hopefully providing space for many more stories to be shared.