When the Arab Spring arrived in Libya in 2011, ending the 42-year reign of strongman Muammar Gaddafi, it brought with it a dizzying sensation that anything was possible. For a determined group of women who’d spent eight years training on an all-female soccer team, the revolution offered the tantalizing prospect of playing their first competitive match for their country.
Filmed over the course of five years, “Freedom Fields” documents the challenges they faced on and off the field, as their fight to gain acceptance for their team paralleled the struggle for millions of women looking to define their roles in contemporary Libyan society. Naziha Arebi’s directorial debut, which world premiered at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, is set to screen at the BFI London Film Festival on Oct. 11.
The U.K.-born helmer traveled to Libya in the aftermath of the revolution, hoping to explore her connection to a country that her father left in the 1970s. “There was this magic…when everything was still very hopeful,” she says. “It was something very exciting to be around.”
Arebi soon befriended the members of the soccer team: an eclectic mix of women drawn from different social, political, tribal and economic backgrounds. In the tense days and weeks after the revolution, the players found themselves waiting in suspense for the opportunity to represent Libya on the international stage. The widening frame of “Freedom Fields” finds them balancing their competitive goals and personal duties, all while the hopes of the revolution begin to fade.
Though women were at the forefront of the Libyan uprising, they soon found themselves sidelined as the country spiraled toward civil war. For the soccer players of “Freedom Fields,” simply lacing up their cleats made them the targets of conservative imams, Islamist militias, and vicious social media campaigns.
Still, their spirits remained upbeat. “There was a lightness of touch, especially in the darker moments, that allowed there to be humor amid the darkness,” says Arebi. “They were really down to earth, and fun. But they had such strength, and I found that really inspiring.”
The uncertainty of everyday life after the revolution was central to the production of “Freedom Fields.” “It was constantly shifting, it was constantly changing,” says Arebi, who noted she was “learning on the fly” while making her first documentary. Though she’d originally planned to produce a more “slick, esthetically beautiful film,” she ended up with something that had “an interesting, chaotic, raw, punk element” — a reflection of the country’s rough edges as it lurches toward the next, uncertain chapter in its history.
Arebi now divides her time between Libya and the U.K., and is producing a second documentary about the aftermath of the revolution, to be released next year. She’s still involved with an NGO established by one of the players in “Freedom Fields,” and has partnered with Unicef to work with girls in schools and IDP (internally displaced person) camps.
“I didn’t think this film would have such an impact on my life, and on [the players’],” she says. “But they kept fighting, even when there was nothing. They kept their hopes…[and] I was determined that I wasn’t going to let go.”