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Stories of Libya make waves in Locarno

  • Libyan filmmakers in Locarno

The Libyan filmmakers being interviewed in Locarno

August 2015

Professor Noe Mendelle, director of the Scottish Documentary Institute, reports from the Locarno Film Festival, where our 'Libyan Stories' shorts premiered and three Libyan filmmakers made a life-changing trip to the festival.

The Locarno Film Festival combines the Italian elegance, the Swiss financing and the German efficiency - in a word, the dream festival to premiere 'Libyan Stories'.

In 2012, only three months after the death of Gaddafi, the British Council invited the Scottish Documentary Institute to run a creative documentary workshop with young local filmmakers. This was the birth of Libyan Stories!

Thanks to the extraordinary partnership with British Council Libya and the support of British Council's London-based film team, we ended up with a series of 13 short documentaries from Libya shot over the last three years, tailing the descent of Libya from post revolution to civil war. The films are little insights into the life of people trying to find normality in a world in chaos.

The Locarno Film Festival wanted to create a focus on Libya and of course the only films found for the last three years were those made in collaboration with British Council.

Locarno managed to bring over three of our filmmakers from the workshops. They were:

Muhannad Lamin with 80, an animated documentary about a guy who got arrested and released by accident.

Najmi Own with Mission Impossible, about two young filmmakers on a mission trying to break into the film industry but meanwhile Libya is breaking down into civil war.

Kelly Ali (co-director) with Land of Men, about the post-revolution dreams of Libyan women.

Even competing with glossy films in Locarno's programme, our first Libyan Stories screening had over 500 people attending and most of them stayed for the Q&A. The audience wanted to know everything: from the current situation in Tripoli to what can they do as filmmakers in such situation.

For the second screening, we had to turn people away after squeezing 600 people in the cinema. It was overwhelming to see that our shorts could compete with the draw of Hollywood films starring Amy Schumer and Meryl Streep.

Muhannad, Nadjim and Kelly were real pros! Answering audience questions in a very calm, poetic fashion they talked about what it felt like surviving in Tripoli. Over three days they went from one interview to another: press, radio, TV you name it, they all wanted to publish something about our Libyan Stories. Even the British Ambassador, based in Bern, was a fan.

Talking to Swiss TV, the filmmakers said:

Muhannad: “You see a story, you want to make that story ... but you can’t without putting ourselves and our characters in real danger. To be in Locarno is a therapy / holiday on how to feel human again!”

Kelly: "To be in Locarno and share with an audience the challenges of making films in Libya and to see them applaud the results, that’s really moving”

Nadjim: “I've never been to an international festival before and I am overwhelmed by people’s interest in my country but also in my filmmaking.”

The glamour of a film festival was a long way away from the beginnings of the Stories initiative.

When we first went to Tripoli in February 2012, the city may have been wrecked by bullets from the revolution but the mood was high and positive. In 2013, we returned to run the same workshop in Benghazi but two days before the workshop's start, the American Ambassador was shot and Benghazi was declared closed to non-Libyans (we moved the workshop to Tripoli instead of cancelling it).

In 2014, the British Council asked for the Scottish Documentary Institute to design and deliver 16 weeks' documentary teaching at the Tripoli Art Academy in order to produce four three-minute films and then four 10-minute films for Libyan Stories.

That meant another six trips to Tripoli. Why did we persist in finishing the workshop despite security challenges?

Of course we are a bunch of idealists at SDI and always trying to invoke the role of culture in peacebuilding but mainly because our participants were desperate for any form of creative filmmaking activity and contact with outsiders. The feeling was that Libya was now forgotten by the rest of the world. Maybe by showing those films internationally it would be a scratch on the silence surrounding Libya.

It was a real challenge for the filmmakers to keep going through moments of complete isolation from any contact with us and often with each other. With so much violence and chaos around them, it is sometimes hard to find the motivation to keep going making films.

It may seem insignificant compare to the bigger picture yet our participants have already realized that the little stories they filmed over the past three years, already have a major cultural significance.

I believe our Libyan directors have made friends for life and hopefully will attract producers and financial support for their next projects. I, on the other hand, have returned to the office with a long list of festival requests…..this is not the last word on Libyan Stories!

And the Stories will continue in other places, too. The initiative also now been done as an SDI-British Council partnership in Dhaka, Bangladesh; Rabat, Morocco, Ramallah, Palestine; and Karachi, Pakistan. And we hope to bring it to new parts of the globe soon.

Read about our original trip to Libya back in 2012 to make Benghazi Stories