Naziha Arebi’s Freedom Fields follows three female footballers and their team over five years in post-revolution Libya. Each from different social and political backgrounds, these accidental activists offer a glimpse into a country of hope, struggle and sacrifice, as the utopian dream is consumed by civil war. In conversation with ASFF, Arebi discusses the need to challenge the news cycle to create relatable narratives and breaking down boundaries through cinema.
ASFF: What compelled you to dedicate five years to this project?
NA: I suppose the first point you made about how people will take different things away from the film – I always like that. I don’t like it when something is pushed too much in your face; I think audiences should be able to unpack and take away from a film what touches them. But for me personally making the film, and what enabled me to stick with it for so long, I suppose it was the passion of these women, which was kind of contagious. They’re funny, determined and they’re pretty kick ass, but they also have contradictions – they’re human and they are a different sort of activist to what we are used to seeing. They’re not from the elite, they’re down to earth and people you want to hang out with. If it wasn’t for who and how they are, I wouldn’t have been able to stick at the film for so long.
I also get annoyed about what we see in the media with certain narratives, and I really wanted to challenge that – to provide an alternative narrative from Libya, because it’s such an unknown country. It’s so complex and particular, and I really wanted to be able to play with and explore that a lot. It’s never just one reason, otherwise then you’d make something bland and singular. The point of this film for me was that the place is layered and chaotic, and I felt the film should have that punk, chaotic layered edge.
ASFF: We need films that enable us to change the narrative and engage with a more honest and complex understanding of a culture, place or set of events. How do you respond to this?
NA: Often the media feeds the media. People just get used to the same images, and then it’s just a self-fulfilling cycle. So it’s really important to offer up something – without sounding cliché – that’s human. It’s necessary to show something that’s tangible. We all bleed, we all have things that bring us joy, we all get frustrated.
It can seem that the world is falling apart if you scroll through your timeline or you look on the news. It’s important right now that we do actually provide these alternative narratives. With Brexit, the Trump administration, the wars in Libya, Iraq and Syria as just a few examples, it can seem that there aren’t humans behind all of these situations. So now more than ever we have to disrupt those timelines to offer something a bit more relatable to change perspectives from the inside out.
ASFF: How do you perceive the camera as a tool to achieve this?
NA: I believe to make a film like this, to be able to be that close to these brilliant people, there has to be a level of intimacy and connection. I suppose that comes from the fact that over time we built relationships, but a camera – no matter what anyone says – will always slightly alter a situation, because it’s a piece of equipment in your hand between you and the person. But that doesn’t have to be a negative thing, it can be really interesting, and for me you have to get people to become used to it, so then they almost forget it, and that’s when you get the magic.
A camera can also be dangerous because you’re in this power dynamic, choosing what to shoot and what to edit – that also comes with a lot of responsibility. It’s important to break down that power and make sure that if I’m asking someone to be be open with themselves, that I’m open with myself. It’s shifting the gaze of what a camera can do, because I’m not interested in voyeurism. I always want the camera to feel like it’s an extension of myself.
ASFF: Cinema can help cultivate a sense of empathy through its intimate framing. How does this translate to your work?
NA: My mom died whilst I was making this film and she used to say: “It’s hard to hate up close.” I really believe that. I think we can very much fall into the thinking that people from a distance are people we don’t know. But when individuals or communities are presented to us – which cinema can do – then you can get so close to people in different way. You really get to be in someone’s life, with a sense of closeness that only cinema can allow.
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1. Still from Freedom Fields.