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?
The weather is cold but the spirits are hot. Slamdance 2012 is pumping like a well oiled machine. As a first timer here, I must admit its a wonderful experience to be part of a huge gathering of artists alike. Ten years ago when I made the choice to become a filmmake my goal was to see a project of mine on the big screen. In about 24 hours this dream with be coming true. My only hope is that it will be received well by the audience.
Either way my filmmaking spirit has been reenergized after a a long bout of financial illness and weakening confidence. It goes to show that things can flip on a dime and the world will give back. Honestly I am still not sure what to make of it all especially as a first timer to an event of this size. I must still remind myself that I am not here as a tourist but as a contributor to the festival. Hopefully all goes well at our screening tomorrow.
I again thank all of our supporters of the film, ‘We Win or We Die’ and of course all our supporters over the years. At 180 films we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Reporting from Park City, Utah
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.
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.
Over the course of the revolution, I have learned many priceless lessons from the Libyan people in their bid to jettison the Gaddafi apparatus. As the lifeblood that animates the body was shed on the battlefield, the red-stained dust of war revealed to me the true value of human dignity, and perhaps even the true cost of freedom (clichés all too often used in my society without any real understanding of their respective meanings). Yet despite all this food supplied to my starving thoughts, I have found no greater lesson than the one taught to me by a precocious 13-year old boy named Malek.
In the early days of the uprising, the flimsy infrastructure of Benghazi completely collapsed under the weight of revolt. All services came to a grinding halt when the city effectively cut itself from the regime. Yet in one of the greatest acts of cooperation I have ever witnessed, the people came out en masse, volunteering in a myriad of roles to keep the very heartbeat of Libya’s second city alive. To do his part, young Malek wished to direct traffic in the all too congested epicenter of the revolution. So one day, he bought a hat and a whistle, and found one of the busiest intersections in town. Without skipping a beat, he confidently walked into the midst of the chaos, and started waving his arms this way and that…until the entropy decreased, and the crossroads once again began to resemble a normal intersection.
When I met Malek, his 60-year old uncle told me his story with a touch of awe. This 13-year old boy, caught in the sea change of revolution, came to realize what most of us never will. Not with positive reinforcement, nor with words of admonishment, but with a simple action that cuts much deeper than the billion-dollar industry of life coaching ever could. For the greatest lessons are not found within the feel-good slogans, nor within the easily remembered catch phrases. They lay compressed within the very actions themselves. The motion, not the voice.
Since his traffic-directing days, Malek has demonstrated a firm grasp of this lesson time and time again through his largely successful endeavors, ranging from underground wholesale distribution to providing protection for the neighborhood. When he decided to be a horse trainer, he simply bought a horse whip, and befriended a horse owner. When he decided to be a businessman, he searched for the best deal around, and cut the perfect balance between profit and undercutting the more experienced competition. And when Tripoli fell, he got his hands on a crate of fireworks, and put on the best damn show in town. Keep in mind that I am writing about a mere child, a yearling who barely even saw the edge of the last century. Yet this child has more wisdom contained within his heavyset frame than most experienced life coaches ever could possess. For this he has become my teacher, and I his student.
So what is this lesson I speak of? Our self-centered minds, in a cheap bid to feel clever and important, will without doubt look for a complicated set of principles that guide Malek’s actions (of which I have barely skimmed the surface). And we will then smugly sit back and let others marvel at our own depth and intelligence. But of course we will utterly miss the point, and in time continue our onslaught of complaints about how nothing ever goes our way. Meanwhile, a 13 year old kid in the middle of a shattered city torn asunder by war, is unapologetically getting shit done.