Finding Normality in Chaos: Libyan Stories

In 2012, just three months after the death of Gaddafi, the British Council invited Scottish Documentary Institute to Libya to run workshops with young local filmmakers. 

At the time Tripoli was ravaged by the revolution but the mood was high and positive. 

In 2013 we planned to return to the region and run the same workshop in Benghazi. Two days before our arrival, however, the American Ambassador was shot and Benghazi was declared closed to non-Libyans. Rather than cancelling it, the British Council relocated the workshop in Tripoli. The filmmakers, eager to attend, ended up travelling back and forth from Benghazi to Tripoli despite great potential danger to themselves.


In 2014 we were asked to deliver 16 weeks documentary teaching at the Tripoli Art Academy to produce 4 x 3’ films and then 4 x 10’ for Libyan Stories.

"bullet proof Rover with armed guard"

This meant another 6 trips to Tripoli. With each visit it became more challenging for the British Council to assure our security; our transport went from private car to land rover to eventually a bullet proof Rover with armed guard. On our last visit, it was no longer safe to stay in a hotel so we were housed in a British private, gated, armed compound, 5 inches away from the British Council. By then, every Brit had left. 

Why did we persist in finishing the workshop?

Of course in part because we are a bunch of idealists at SDI, always trying to invoke the role of culture in peace-building, but mainly because our participants were desperate for any form of creative filmmaking activity and contact with outsiders. The feeling was that Libya had been forgotten by the rest of the world and maybe taking these films out of the country could be a scratch on the silence.

This series of short stories from Libya ended up being made over the last 3 years of the country’s tumble from post revolution to civil war. The films are little insights into people’s life, trying to find normality in a world in chaos. 

It has been a real challenge for the filmmakers to keep going through moments of complete isolation, removed from any contact with us and often with each other.  Surrounded by so much violence and chaos, it was sometimes hard to find the motivation to keep going and make their films.

"fighting over the very soul of their country"

It may seem insignificant compared to the bigger picture, yet our participants have realized that the little stories they filmed over the past 3 years, already have 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. Any real destruction was avoided and the filmmakers were able to film the mosque in all its beauty. Last October, however, 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. The film will be its memory as well as the painful reminder that the situation in Libya continues to be lawless and its people are fighting over the very soul of their country. 

Another of my favourite films amongst the series is The Secret Room - the story of a museum caretaker who risked his life to protect objects of art during the 2011 revolution. Only this week, UNESCO strongly appealed for the international community to help counter the emerging threat of violent extremism and cultural cleansing declaring “World Heritage is the foundation of people's existence and cohesion […]. It is the wellspring of social identity” 

The films have been pulled together into a compilation for festivals. At a time when Tunisia is building a hundred miles wall along their border, every film in this series becomes a tiny peephole into Libya. If as many people see them as possible they will become oxygen to those filmmakers locked in Tripoli. 

Locarno International Film Festival geographically located at the crossroads of three great European regions, (Italian, German and French), is our perfect World Premiere for Libyan Stories to be launched to their multi-cultural audience.

Don’t miss them!