"As their dreams were shattered so were mine"
In her feature documentary debut Freedom Fields, Naziha Arebi shows the long-term struggles of a group of women attempting to get a Libyan national women's soccer team up and running as their country is moving from revolution to violent conflict.
Arebi was born and raised in the UK, but her father is of Libyan descent. She first returned to Libya with her father in 2010, and then moved there in the wake of the revolutions of the “Arab Spring”. “I'd already heard of this Libyan women's soccer team back in London. So when I ended up moving to Libya, I set out to find them.”
What interested her most when she finally met the team, was the great variety in the women's backgrounds. “It's a cliché to say that sports unite people, but it's true: I would never have met people from such different demographics anywhere else. Some were with the revolution and some were against it; there were affluent people from upper-class backgrounds and people who were from the working class; a mix of doctors, engineers, students, refugees. All these different walks of life in this one little microcosm, that fascinated me.”
But as the revolution gave way to a bloody civil war, the hopeful feelings she encountered on her first visits quickly dissipated. Arebi's film also took a new turn, moving with its subjects. “In the beginning, people really wanted to tell their stories”, Arebi says. “Everyone was very open to being filmed because the country was gripped by this beautiful new idea of freedom and hope. As the situation became more complicated, I had to adapt how I filmed and be more sensitive to the conflict. Not fight against it but move with it, in a way, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to make a film.”
As so many documentary filmmakers do, Arebi soon found that her own fate became intimately entwined with that of the women she was filming. “We celebrated together, we lost together, we struggled together, and we found new hope together. The film was supposed to have been done in 2013. But then the team wasn't allowed to travel to a tournament in Germany, and as their dreams were shattered, so were mine – it wasn't the film I thought I was making. It took me a while to realize that if I could let go of the preconceptions of what I was making, maybe I had something far richer and more interesting. We didn't know whether they would get another chance to play, so a lot of people asked me what I was even filming. I told them: 'I'm filming the absence, and through the absence we reveal their lives.' It became a story about the greater Libyan tapestry, about how their lives as young people intertwined with the conflict.”
That relationship has continued now that the film is traveling the festival circuit, with several team members attending IDFA with Arebi. “We visited the Dutch football federation for a training with the world coaches program there; we went to Ajax and had a kickabout with their women's team; we met with Women Win, who do similar things to what the girls and women in the film are now doing with their NGO. I'm really glad we could use the film as a tool for them; putting a spotlight on their work, but also as a way for them to travel and learn from organizations who are doing similar things all around the world.” (JBH)
Doc Talk with director Naziha Arebi after the screening of her film Freedom Fields at IDFA 2018. Arebi also participated in the 2018 IDFAcademy program and her film was previously selected for the IBF Classic - production (2013) and IBF Europe - Co-production (2015) grants.