Naziha Arebi isn’t any ordinary filmmaker, though it takes one of a certain kind to spend five years documenting the progress – and sometimes lack thereof – of the Libyan women’s football team, in the midst of the revolution to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi. After some offhand comments about LSE’s, erm, role in things, we proceed.
“At first we wanted to make a film about the women’s team’s first international match. But it didn’t go ahead, for reasons shown in the film.” Local militias, religious leaders, even the football federation all stood in the way of the team’s progress. “And that became a story in itself: I just thought, ‘I absolutely cannot stop now.’ So I carried on for another four years and found so many more layers and stories along the way. The players’ stories, Libya’s story. Maybe even my story.”
The star and captain of the team, Fadwa, saw things differently. “We didn’t understand at the beginning what it was.” She looks to Arebi. “We made fun of you and thought ‘You have a stop doing that.’ Get a life! But she was always welcome in the team, and after all that struggle she made with us, we felt it would be great for as many people to see us as possible.”
It’s no surprise to learn that Libya’s political and religious establishment did not look kindly on the empowerment of women’s sport. One cleric warned against football proving a gateway to more promiscuous activities, like running or swimming. Fadwa said, “They’ll always find a way to oppress you. If it’s not football it would be something else.”
Arebi’s experience in making the film, similarly, was often one of toil and hardship. “Usually [filming] was stopped because people thought I was a spy – right, a spy with a huge camera – but when you see all this propaganda of course you’re gonna be scared of people perpetuating that. I had to tell people I’m not a journalist, I’m a filmmaker. Once they were aware of that they accepted me filming.”
If following the Libyan women’s team and telling their story isn’t journalism, I contend, what is?
“I suppose everything is political but I never sought to make anything like that. I guess what I tried to do is make people feel, and when they feel to ask questions, to want to read up on stuff. I’m not delivering information or facts. When I was editing I got rid of a lot of the contextual information I thought was unnecessary, because I wanted to relieve people of that and allow them to feel for themselves.”
Instinct, moreover, drew Fadwa and her teammates to football. The first game she remembers is the 1996 Champions League final, between Ajax and her beloved Juventus. “I couldn’t even say Ajax, but I’ve been following football ever since. Zidane, Ronaldinho, they inspired me above all else. I’m in love with it.”
In the film Fadwa admits to facing some scepticism in the career path she chose. “But my mum was really supportive and just wanted me to be happy. I never had that pressure that others have – I was so lucky to have my family behind me. They knew as soon as I started playing football that I wouldn’t be a normal girl, that I wasn’t ever going to take the normal path.”
Fadwa, who for security reasons revealed only her first name, set up an NGO to develop girl’s football in her home country. “We focus on using football as a tool of empowerment and inspiring little girls. So we go to schools and do workshops and football training, the way we did. Football gave us strength. If you’re a woman in Libya you need to live with strength, and sport is the healthy way to do that.”
Does Fadwa see any changes for women in Libya over the last few years, or at least some more acceptance in the footballing world?
She laughs, and then goes quiet. “It’s the same federation, it’s the same people. If we wanted to start again we’d still struggle. As long as it’s the same people sitting in their chairs, nothing will change. They will not listen – they think they’re doing a great job! They’re proud of themselves.”
Arebi is more optimistic. “Surprisingly we had lots of Libyans in the film’s premiere yesterday and they loved it, and loved our story. So it’s about letting as many as possible access that, not just through this film but in other ways. Getting past that fear of what you don’t know is always the way forward.”