In light of the recent tragic events in Libya, I feel that it is time to speak out. For the past few days, I have been filled with profound grief about the death of the American diplomatic staff, and the Libyans who heroically defended them in my beloved Benghazi. Many of you have done your parts to assuage my grief by showing empathy and understanding in your hearts for the Libyan people. And I love you all for that.
Yet sadly, I have seen the flip side, the cynical need for some of you to characterize all Libyans, and the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, as the Other, the monsters and devils lying in wait, ready to tear down the gates of civilization. And to make matters worse, your voices, overflowing with ironclad certainty, utterly drown out the voices of reason and moderation. I spent nearly a year in Benghazi getting to know the true character of the people. And yet my experiences count for nothing to you. And so I write this, half-knowing that it will never reach your eyes. Yet still I write.
When the Libyan uprising first erupted in February of last year, I watched in amazement as an entire population attempted to liberate itself from the crushing yoke of a mercurial tyrant, a God King meant for another century. And when I read a small passage on CNN about an everyman filling his car with explosives and ramming the anti-aircraft gun outside of the great fortress that dominates Benghazi, that was it for me. I just had to be there. I needed to see this people’s revolution for myself. And no, not through the distorted media lens, but through my own eyes.
The decision made, I now had to deal with the lingering specter of terror. What the hell was I getting into? Thankfully I had a good friend already there, but as far as I was concerned, I was still leaping headlong into the void. I still recall so vividly the conversation with an expert on what to do if I was captured. And even more vividly, the discussion with my dad on the code we would use if I was indeed kidnapped. I remember finding it so unbelievably odd how we casually broke up the regions of Libya into the geographical locations of English football clubs in case I was thrust against my will in front of the camera. Driving up to the San Francisco International Airport in the false light before dawn, and blithely talking about the possibility of being imprisoned…or even worse.
Three weeks of frantic preparation passed, and I found myself looking toward the Egyptian checkpoint, patiently waiting for permission to cross the border, and into the midst of the revolution. Then suddenly…I was there. And what a strange sensation it was. So this is how it feels to be in a revolution? No anxiety. No terror. Just a feeling of ever-growing excitement.
As we toured the eastern city of Tobruk, we were greeted with scenes that would become all too familiar to me during the early days. Children sweeping the streets free of debris. Citizens policing the crumbling neighborhoods. And everyone wanting to shake my hand. Men invited me into their houses for lunch. Soldiers guarding forlorn checkpoints gave me tea. And every man, woman and child wanted to tell their story, the tragic price that they paid under the reign of “Brother Leader”.
The more time I spent in Libya, the more I found my own hope, long lost to cynicism and self-absorption, return – and return in waves. And no better reflection of this hope could I find than in the burgeoning music and art scene. After 42 years of boiling under the surface, creative expression burst forth with a ferocity that reduced the walls to rubble. People literally discovered their artistic talents overnight, and they wasted no time. The media center in downtown Benghazi was a veritable beehive of activity. Every room was filled with artists, newspaper editors, metal bands and hip hop groups, all of them determined to express themselves to the fullest. I was floored by this fast evolving Renaissance to such an extent that I decided to harness it into a rocking music festival in the heart of Benghazi.
As the war became mired in an unstable equilibrium, the enthusiasm of those early days would soon fade. But the feeling would return in spades when the God King finally fell from the sky. On that day, October 20th, a day I will likely never experience again, the celebrations were on a scale I cannot adequately describe. As one friend so eloquently put it, there was a complete and total absence of hatred in the entire city. All of our personal chains dissolved, and for that oh so brief moment, we were united in the fellowship of man.
Yet sadly, the feeling was all too fleeting, and Libya soon became mired in post-revolutionary blues. After months of planning, the festival was cancelled at the 11th hour. The music that was such a driving force during the revolution went silent, and the paint dried up. More and more problems came to the surface as stagnation set in. People became truly jaded, and the spirit of February 17th withered.
Yet to my amazement, I still felt safer within the dilapidated confines of Benghazi than in any American city. I could walk anywhere, and the people still wanted to shake my hand, to tell me thank you for documenting their struggles. No, not a trendy revolution thing, but the true untarnished character of the people. For you see it’s Benghazi, the city of the homeless, and she welcomes all with open arms. As my time in Libya came to a close, I felt a deep, profound love for her. She adopted me as one of her own, her native son returned. She fed me, housed me and graced me with the warm company of my long lost brothers and sisters: Hammuda, Dado, Bofa, Moftah, Don, Elli, John, Haitham, Abdallah, Mingo, Hussain, Marrwan, Tawfik, Hassam, Masoud, Aziz, Hakim, Saleh, Munder, Mansour, young Malek, Zakaria, several Ibrahims, several Ali’s, Rodaina, Huda, Noran, Fayrouz, Rounak, and the thousands who I have sadly failed to mention.
These, my experiences with each and every one of them, they define Benghazi. They define the spirit of Libya. Yes, I witnessed the desecration of the military cemeteries in Benghazi. Yes, I witnessed a gun battle between a militia and heavily armed thieves. Yes, I saw music festivals cancelled due to the heavy-handedness of some of the more extreme elements.
And yet I saw 100 men rush to the aid of woman who was being car-jacked. I saw 30 citizens rush to help at the scene of a car accident. I saw the utter grief etched on the faces of those gathered at the many funerals I attended. I saw the unfettered tears of Mahdi Zew’s daughters as they reflected on the loss of their beloved father.
I heard the pain in the voices of my friends when they talked about losing the best of them, their dear friend Rami El Kaleh. And I heard the beautiful song that so powerfully expressed their grief. I heard the hip hop artists echo the frustrations of the entire youth culture. I heard Masoud Buisir bring hope to the hearts of the freedom fighters through his rousing music, and his message of universal human rights.
And yet you see the black flags on Fox News. You hear the angry chants of football hooligans outside the US embassies. You see the few hundred wild-eyed extremists destroy monuments and murder the innocent. And you decide that they represent everyone in those parts. And so you call the people of the entire region backward…inhuman…savages. You call their set of beliefs cancerous, even though they share many more similarities than differences with yours. You think of yourselves as modern and enlightened, yet you use nearly the same language as the extremists, and worse, the still ringing voices of 12th century Crusaders.
But before you walk away in disgust, and tune into one of the many hate-mongers on talk radio, I ask you this. When a Libyan reads the newspaper, and sees a story about an unhinged man shooting up a movie theater, how do you think he views you? Does he decide that you’re just like him?
Over one year has passed since I first crossed the frontier into Libya, and what a long, strange trip it’s been. As I stared beyond the final border checkpoint into that empty landscape, before my eyes stretched the great unknown, a boundless abyss of uncertainty. What would become of me in this, the first war-ravaged country I had ever set foot in? Yet to my surprise, that dull sense of dread, such an ever-present specter since I first decided to go, suddenly disappeared, replaced instead with a growing feeling excitement. And so after many years of dull apathy, I felt a renewed sense of purpose.
Long before that border crossing, I fell deep into those dreary, dark doldrums that many filmmakers call home. Progress in the industry was inordinately, soul-sappingly slow. Time, however, wasn’t. And with each year gone, success seemed more and more distant, and less and less likely. Yet all this would change in just four days, those fateful four days in February of 2011. A passion long forgotten would suddenly be rekindled, ushering me across the Atlantic and to this sand-choked border hugging the heights above the Egyptian town of Salloum.
Not an hour from Egypt, we entered into Tobruk, site of the great World War II battle, and the first sizable city in the East of Libya. As we drove on those broken roads, we were greeted with a scene of quiet jubilation. The sense of citizenship coursing through the veins of the residents, newly freed from 42 years of Gaddafi, was like nothing I had ever witnessed. And as we worked our way toward Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising, that same scene played before us…over and over and over. For the whole of the East was polarized, working as one to rid hapless Libya of the systematic oppression that had plagued it for two generations.
As we arrived in Benghazi, midnight had come and gone, but people were out in full force clearing the wreckage from the streets. The following day, we saw 12-year old boys don police hats and direct traffic at the light-less intersections. Downtown, we raptly watched as musicians and artists converged on the once foreboding internal security headquarters, now the media center and the cultural Ground Zero of the revolution. In the blink of an eye, a music and art scene burst forth from under the surface, and enveloped free Libya. Heavy metal, country, blues, jazz and traditional all converged on the media center, and brought its burned out shell to life. And all amidst a backdrop of utter devastation. 42 years of neglect had left Benghazi a living ruin, a bleak setting for a post-apocalyptic film. Yet despite the decay, the city was full of such life, of renewal, of spring come again. I took all this in with amazement, and for the first time in I don’t remember when, I felt a faith in humanity, dormant somewhere deep inside me, reignited. And I felt that same renewal course through my veins.
The idea for a music festival first came to me while I was exploring the ruins of the ancient Greek city Cyrene. While I wandered through the decaying Necropolis that winds down the hill toward Soussa, the youth were out in full force and exercising their creativity out in the open, letting their voices be heard for the first time in their lives. I thought to myself that the world needed to see this, the true face of the revolution. Not al Qaeda. Not Western governments, but the thousands of forgotten, a lost generation rediscovering itself in the music…in the requiem for youth. The more I pondered, the greater the need, it seemed to me, to show to the rest of the world this true face of Libya that I was seeing. And in those quick moments, I transformed from a down-on-his luck filmmaker into a music festival producer.
After leaving Libya for a few months, I returned only to find a large number of people had already heard about the idea. As a friend later explained to me, news travels near the speed of light in the metropolitan village that is Benghazi, and one person stumbling across a Youtube video of some unknown American talking about some Libyan music festival soon turned into 50 ad hoc festival organizers. Before I even arrived, I had a crew. And when I once again planted my feet on Libyan soil, we were off to the races. Soon followed coffee with businessmen, meetings with ministers, and appointments with NGO’s. Interest grew and grew, just as opposing forces violently clashed in the last loyalist stronghold of Sirte. A month passed, and when Sirte finally fell on October 20th, we used the occasion as a platform to advertise about the festival. And, oh, how splendid things looked.
As time wore on, however, it became painfully clear that nothing was actually getting done, and nobody knew what they were doing. The honeymoon was over, and my once robust crew attenuated down to three: me and two others. The enthusiastic voices of support in the National Transitional Council (NTC) had long grown silent, and the various NGO’s never bothered to follow up, let alone return our calls. To make matters worse, the idea was hijacked by at least four different groups, and what once seemed to be a concerted effort of the citizens of Benghazi became a desperate race between rival factions to hold the first festival. The NTC invited Yousif Islam for a festival at our original location. A local television channel began poaching from our lineup for theirs. And whispers of various other music events kept on surfacing throughout the month of January. It seemed the very spirit of the festival, the very spirit of the music, had been tainted. All the enthusiasm, all that newfound hope welling inside of me, was gone, slowly eaten away by the months of collective apathy after the fall of Sirte. Yet somehow, through all of these pitfalls, we remaining, we few persevered. And it appeared our perseverance would be rewarded. One day before the festival, we found ourselves the last ones standing, with a fantastic location secured, and 25 local bands ready to shake the very foundations of Benghazi. As we held the final briefing of the bands, I looked on in sheer amazement. We did it. After all this…we, we really pulled it off.
Sadly, however, the legs that supported us, and seemed to hold up while others fell, were nothing but an illusion, a cruel mirage in the heat of the desert sun. For at the 11th hour, the burgeoning politics of Benghazi laid to waste all our plans…and just like that, we were forced to cancel the festival. The music, the voices, went silent once again.
The aftermath was a particularly difficult time, for the shades of failures past continually haunted me. The hope I had so happily embraced turned to dust in my hands. I hated Benghazi, hated it with a passion, and it appeared that Benghazi began to hate herself. Disappointment and resentment ruled the day as Libya became mired in post-revolutionary stagnation. Once again, corruption was blatantly out in the open, and people felt that nothing had really changed, save for their ability to complain and criticize. Somehow the city reflected how I felt inside, and I wanted nothing more than to go home, to leave this dirty living ruin, lost within the echoes of the 20th century. Yet something inside refused to let me leave. Something I had yet to discover. Some burning question left unanswered.
One beautiful spring day, as I was walking by the lighthouse, the sun peaked through the clouds, and hit the ruined buildings in a peculiar way. And for the first time since I arrived, I saw it. I saw Benghazi. Not the ruined city of trash and rubble that I had come to know, but a hidden gem amidst the dust, a gem with many facets. To truly see Benghazi, to truly understand this unique city of contradictions, one must take them all in at once. All facets. This was a city with virtually no infrastructure. Crumbling hospitals. Decaying roads. And no law and order. Yet despite these civilization-smashing problems, Benghazi not only functioned, but functioned peacefully. In the midst of it all, here I was, a blonde sore thumb with a pony-tail, moaning about the festival and generally feeling sorry for myself. Yet I never felt any real danger, even in a city where most of the population possess small arms, with the police being nothing more than paper tigers. In spite of this, however, I walked virtually everywhere without being bothered (apart from crazy drivers and roving packs of vicious dogs). No, no. This was not Mogadishu. In fact, this was not even San Francisco.
As the rays of the sun illuminated this ancient city on the Bay of Misrata, I at last saw through the veil of my own darkness and gazed upon the true face, the true character, of Benghazi. Unconditional love for this city, my city welled up within, for she embraced me and took me as one of her own. And for the first time, I felt peace.
This story, my story, is not about a festival, nor is it about a nation burning in the flames of revolution. No, this is a story about how the city of Benghazi and I came to love each other, despite our many disagreements, and despite the great cultural chasm that lies between us. In the beginning, I came to her engulfed within the darkness of my soul, among the shadows of failures past. Yet in the end, she would come to love me as I love her, and lead me out of the darkness. As I left her behind in the sands of the Great Desert, I finally heard her song. And what a beautiful song it was.
With all the struggles occurring in the world, this short film tells not only the story of one man, and a people. But also relays the resonating frequency of revolt throughout the globe, as they fight for the primal right of freedom, property, and the pursuit of happiness. ‘We Win or We Die’ strikes a cord that applies to me and all people I believe. The title does not just apply to Libyan people alone, it is a beacon of strength for all people to rally behind for a new age. In this writer’s humble opinion, this film is the film of the year, created by young lads with spit and hope. Go now and see this powerful film and witness the power of a collective force.
December 7, 2011, the creative crew of ‘We Win or We Die’ attended a kick off diner for the 2012 Slamdance film festival. Over Cuban food in Los Angeles Versailles restaurant, the crew enjoyed meeting other filmmakers, critics, and distributers as everyone toasted in the new festival for 2012.
For Matt Millan and Erik Niel this was the beginning of a new step in their 10 year career as filmmakers. Both men agree emphatically that none of their recent success would have ever transpired without the talent of animator Evan Sexton, the quality insights provided by Adrian Belic and Amir Masud, and of course Chris Testa and Harold Millan’s incredible knowledge and guidance to the project as producers.
Matt and Erik wish a warm thank you to all the supporters of the film who believed independent film making is a worthy endeavor. Without people like you Independent artists could not exist.
The crew gears up for Slamdance cometition taking place in Park City Uath in late January 2012. Morale is high and the crew is very excited to have been selected for such a big festival. To all 180 Films supporters and fans over the years we again say, “thank you very much for your support we could not have gotten this far without you.”
Be on the look out for updates as the festival approaches, from all of us at 180 Films, Happy Holidays.
“After traveling through the East, I now see Libya with different eyes. It’s as if a volcano of artistic expression erupted in front of me. And I’ll tell you, it’s ripe for the most rockin’ music festival on the Mediterranean.”
Rebirth: 17 of February Music Festival is an exciting new initiative: the first annual music festival in a liberated Libya, and soon to be the most epic music event in North Africa and the Middle East. It will be held on the one year anniversary of the uprising, and will run for three days (Feb.17th, 18th, 19th, 2012). It is the brainchild of filmmaker and music lover Matthew Millan, who traveled to the East of the Libya in April and May of this year to Libya to document the uprising. Within hours of entering into the country from Egypt, he became horrified at the level of devastation and neglect wrought upon the East of Libya by the Gaddafi regime. From the forgotten ruins near Shahhat to the half-erected buildings of Bayda, the East appeared to be remnants of an abandoned civilization. Yet amidst the dust of war, he soon discovered something extraordinary being born out of the spirit of Libyan people. From the sophisticated art of Bayda to the thriving music scene in Benghazi, a nuclear explosion of the arts had occurred, covering its plume throughout the East of the North African country. And while exploring the ruins of the Katiba the sprawling fortress that dominates the center of Benghazi, it occurred to him that a music and arts festival would be the perfect foil to highlight this blast of creativity, and in one of the most beautiful regions he has ever seen.
The idea was borne not only out of a strong desire to highlight to the rest of the world the rebirthing of the Libyan cultural identity amidst the chaos, but to raise money to help rebuild the decaying infrastructures that plague Libya. In September of 2011, Matthew Millan returned to Libya to secure the location for the festival, and to take care of the local logistics. The difficult process of bringing the festival to life in a war ravaged country will then be made into a feature length documentary, a singular event that encapsulates the Libyan Phoenix rising out of the ashes of the old regime.
By: Don Smith (smithpolitical)
It has been a hectic past few days. We are attempting to arrange the largest music festival in Libya’s history, Rebirth: 17th February Music Festival, in only a few months. We are also showing the film “We Win or We Die” all across Benghazi. I’d like to say many thanks to Tawfik and the International School that he runs for allowing us to show the film there. The overall response to the film, “We Win or We Die”, and the festival, Rebirth: 17th February Music Festival, has been positive. Most people have commented that he film reminds them of the revolutionary spirit that that had just a few months ago and the festival is an excellent way to celebrate Benghazi’s independence.
This brings me to Thursday October 20th. The air is electric with the news of the fall of Sirte and Gaddafi’s demise. The end of 42 years of tyranny has released a tidal wave of emotion. With crowds of people bombarding the streets yesterday, firing off pistols and assault rifles, it was like New Years Eve and the 4thof July rolled into one. With shouts of “Long live Libya” and “Long live America” filled the air as I was continually approached and thanked for the role the US had in the liberating of this country. I have yet to come across any anti-American sentiment since I came here and many Libyan want Americans to feel that Libya is their second home.
The people are ecstatic and the air is filled with hope as Libyans once again own their country and can control its future. However, there is also a deep awareness of the long road ahead of them. Libya as a nation is quite wealthy, but Gaddafi squandered that wealth leaving most of the nation in ruins. Construction has been in frozen for the past ten years leaving half-built buildings sitting in a state of suspended animation and many of the nation’s historical landmarks in complete disrepair. There is trash everywhere because waste management was cancelled once the war began and the water system needs to be revamped so the people can once again have clean drinking water. Very few police are on the streets and government offices have yet to reopen, but the streets are peaceful and these services should resume shortly.
The sectarian violence that has plagued Iraq has made many Libyans resolute to not let their country slide into a civil war. And while there is always some risk of conflict based on ideology, this is fortunately unlikely in Libya for a variety of reasons. Tribalism, while still present in the country, does not contribute to any longstanding conflict within Libyan society, having held much of the country together in the absence of government, and is no more significant than any other form of regionalism in any other country. Religious extremism exits only within a minority of the population and secularism is favored by the majority of Libyans over the establishment of a religious caliphate. This is not to say that Libyans wish to abandon Sharia law, in fact many would argue that it should be the basis of the legal system, but that the laws should be flexible and open to interpretation to allow the government to expand with the people. Another fear is that political opportunism will lead to fracturing of Libyan society because conflict can always be manufactured by those who wish to exploit it for their advantage. Issues can be created and then used to divide a once unified electorate. Already there are those in the West that question the validity of a government created in the East. Nor should any favoritism be used in the division of the country’s assets. Regionalism is important and Libya can easily exist within a federated system that complements this regionalism. One can only hope that the Libyan leadership will put partisanship aside and do what is best for the country.
Many dramatic events will enfold over the next few months as the nation shifts towards democracy and factions form into political parties. Libya’s first free elections will usher in a new era for the country. That and the drafting of a new Libyan constitution are sure to ensure years of peace and prosperity to come. Now is a time for excitement, and rebirth, for while many years of hard work are ahead the Libyan people know that Libya’s future is its own once again, the era of tyranny is over, and a new Libya sees the dawn.
Yesterday started like any other day in Benghazi. The rumor mill was turning at pace. Sirte was on the verge of falling. The NTC was about to declare an end to hostilities. For days and days, however, we had heard the same, so most of us didn’t expect October 20th to unfold the way it did.
The morning was spent trying to arrange screenings of my film to various English-speaking schools in town. While at the European School, my friend Dado received a call from another friend. Halas. Sirte, the last bastion of Gaddafi, had fallen. Once again, I was a bit skeptical, because I had heard the same before. I went to speak to the Headmaster and didn’t think any more of it.
After the interview, Dado and I headed to the Libya Alhurra tv station to collect footage for the music festival. Something definitely was amiss. Horns honking and Kalashnikov fire at a greater frequency. And even the distant boom of gelatina. Hmm. Perhaps.
We pulled into the station, and joined a crowd gathered by a tv. Sirte has fallen, and some big names have been captured. Yet what of Gaddafi? We waited. Nothing. An interminable period of time passed…and then the cheers erupted. Local news claimed Gaddafi was captured, but once again I was skeptical. After all, Motassim was “captured” 10 days ago. And Saif was “detained” after the fall of Tripoli.
But then the pictures filtered through. Images of what appeared to be a lifeless Gaddafi. And soon Al Jazeera confirmed that it was indeed true. After 42 years of iron fisted rule, the self-styled god king was dead. A man who hovered over his people ominously, even within their dreams, reduced to pleading for his life in a sewage pipe. From whence he came, as some would argue.
We rushed out of the station and headed straight for the courthouse, Dado blasting Dire Straits the whole way. The road was packed. Horns honking. People chanting. Guns firing. There was a palpable energy in the air, one that I had not felt since I was here in April and May. The courthouse area was beginning to fill with people…and the noise was deafening. Walking through the crowd, it was easy to be swept away in the euphoria. For even though the war had been winding down over the last couple of months, the death toll in Sirte was rising steadily, and the specter of Gaddafi still hovered over their lives. Yet now it was over. The head separated from the shaven body.
We spent rest of the afternoon at the courthouse interviewing people, and enjoying the jubilant scenes before taking a siesta. When we returned in the evening, the downtown was absolutely packed. Gridlock everywhere, but nobody cared. We walked by a car accident, but those involved were too excited to pay much notice. Benghazinos and Benghazinas were out in full force, and enjoying a night that they will remember for the rest of their lives. VL Day.
As I walked through the downtown area, I wondered what it would be like in six months. Would the vacuum left by Gaddafi lead to a mass scramble for power? Would one tyrant be replaced by another? Or would Libya become a beacon of light to the rest of the world? Many questions are left unanswered. Yet I can still hear the faint voices of the wives and mothers of the Abu Salim victims on that fateful night in February. “Wake up, Benghazi. Wake up, Benghazi.” On this day, the 20th of October, 2011, I can assure you that Benghazi, and the whole of Libya, has its eyes wide open.