Unsung hero: A novice graffiti artist in one of the films, which focuses on ordinary people Image Credit: Scottish Documentary Institute

While the people of Benghazi were ejecting the Islamist militias from their city in September, another smaller but equally remarkable event was taking place 645 kilometres away in Tripoli. In the former French embassy, in the old part of the city, some 70 people were attending the first public screening of Libyan-made films since last year’s revolution (and possibly a long time before that).

There were just six short documentaries, around five minutes each. In the final film, “Granny’s Flags”, a Tripoli grandmother recounted how, during the revolution, women had to bake bread before the electricity ran out, and how she had been kept busy sewing makeshift versions of Libya’s reinstated national flag. “We are happy that Muammar died ... He used to smother us,” she says, before telling off Libya’s toppled dictator as if he were her own son: “Gaddafi, Gaddafi, Gaddaaaaafi. We got rid of him.” And she spreads her hands as if clearing him off the table. The audience burst into spontaneous applause.

New freedoms of expression are being tested in Libya and elsewhere, post-Arab spring, but the subject of cinema has become particularly pertinent in recent weeks, largely because of a film that has nothing to do with the country itself. “The Innocence of Muslims” has become the most famous film that practically nobody has seen — a clumsy but effective attempt to provoke the Muslim world. Benghazi, Libya’s second city, was an early flashpoint, and the killing of the US ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three others there on September 11 fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment across the Arab world. Conversely, Western media responded with knee-jerk condemnations of “Muslim rage”. The narrative of the Arab spring threatened to take a U-turn.

There is now a cultural vacuum in Libya, and a political one, thanks to the Gaddafi regime. “There was no filmmaking culture here at all under Gaddafi,” Naziha Arebi, the director of “Granny’s Flags”, says. “He didn’t want anybody to be more famous than him. Even the football players had just numbers on their shirts, because he didn’t want anyone to know their names. He certainly wasn’t going to let anybody be a film director.”

Arebi is half-English, half-Libyan. She grew up in Hastings, studied at the Royal College of Art, and worked a little in film circles before coming to Libya for the first time in September last year. It is her own granny in the film, she explains. “We’ve seen the common view of the revolution but we don’t hear much about the older, normal people. I thought it was really important to show it wasn’t just these boys going out and fighting — every one was involved on some level.”

Her film, and the five others that screened in Tripoli, are also part-British. They were part of a project initiated by the British Council’s film division, with the Edinburgh-based Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI), to develop filmmaking and other arts around the world. They held a workshop in Tripoli last summer that resulted in three films, including Arebi’s.

They returned to do the same in Benghazi — though by this time security issues prevented the British contingent from leaving Tripoli, so the Benghazi filmmakers had to travel back and forth between the two cities. All the films focused on ordinary people: a novice graffiti artist, a fisherman, a car salesman, a museum guard (who describes how he hid artefacts to protect them from looting), and a female medical student learning to drive. “You’re a doctor, so if you hit someone, at least you can save them,” her brother tells her.

The Benghazi team had just finished their films the day of the Tripoli screening. They are all young men, mostly students and part-time photographers. “We brought out a lot of up-to-date equipment, but they already had their own,” says Noe Mendelle, director of the SDI. “What they didn’t have was a knowledge of film language. A lot of them had done TV-style films or reports, quite macho stuff. It was new to think about different ways of portraying a character, or using sound to tell a story.”

This could be seen by some as a top-down exercise in exporting cultural expertise, but it is as much a bottom-up one. The regime’s lies about the progress of the conflict, and the rebels’ brutality towards civilians, were regularly dispelled by amateur footage posted on blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Moving from this to short documentaries could be a crucial step in developing a film culture in Libya. They are starting virtually from scratch.

According to local critic Ramadan Salim, there were six features and some 100 documentaries made in Libya during the Gaddafi era, but few people have seen them and their present whereabouts are unknown. There is just one functioning cinema in Tripoli, playing mostly Egyptian and Dubai-made commercial films. Pirated DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters are widely available for as little as 1 dinar (Dh2.9) each. “The Twilight” franchise is huge.

Gaddafi did, however, have a hand in two films everybody in Libya knows, both starring the ethnically flexible Anthony Quinn, and both directed by Mustafa Akkad, a Hollywood-based Syrian who went on to produce the “Halloween” franchise.

The first and most notorious is “The Message” [also known as the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), Messenger of God], an expensive account of the birth of Islam. Unlike “The Innocence of Muslims”, “The Message” respects the taboo against depicting the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH); instead it uses point-of-view shots, implying the presence of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) via musical cues, and having other characters repeat his unspoken words [Quinn plays the uncle of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)] . Finding no funding in the United States, Akkad turned to Gaddafi. Even so, many Arab countries refused to believe that “The Message” did not depict the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and would not screen it. The film triggered a 39-hour siege of three office buildings in Washington DC in 1977, by African-American Islamists, involving 149 hostages and the death of a reporter.

A few years later, Akkad shot “Lion of the Desert”, a biopic of Libyan hero Omar Mukhtar, who fought against the invading Italians in the 1920s. Alongside Quinn, it stars Oliver Reed, John Gielgud and Rod Steiger as Benito Mussolini. Like “The Message”, it was a commercial failure, but both films have played regularly on Libyan television since they were made.

Does establishing a film culture really matter in a precarious new democracy with so many other pressing needs? Absolutely, says Mohammad Maklouf, a Libyan filmmaker and former dissident.

“Visual culture started the whole revolution,” he says. “If we didn’t see these images, which changed people’s minds around the world, nothing would have happened. So film is very important. Usually around the Arab world it has been tightly controlled, like Hitler did with Goebbels controlling the image of the Nazis. Some countries, such as Egypt, give a little bit of freedom to filmmakers, but then you still have the problem of the censor. Someone is telling you to cut this and that.”

Few Libyans had heard of Maklouf until recently. He has spent the past 36 years in exile, mostly in the United Kingdom, where he has worked as a journalist and filmmaker, routinely criticising Gaddafi and other Arab regimes. He has made films about censorship, and about other Libyan exiles, including the incumbent interim president, Mohammad Magariaf.

Maklouf claims that an Egyptian intermediary once offered him “millions of dollars” to stop making anti-Gaddafi films, on behalf of Gaddafi’s cousin, Ahmad Gaddafi Aldam (now wanted by the new Libyan authorities). Just before the revolution, he put up an anti-Gaddafi Facebook page, urging Libyans to follow the example of their north African neighbours.

Now in his early 50s, Maklouf is about to relocate to Benghazi permanently. He has big plans, starting with a film festival this December. “The famous taboos for Arab cinema are sex, religion and politics,” he says. “We’re not in the mood for sex now, religion is very touchy, but political expression must be shown.”

He aims to show films from across the Arab world, “about revolution, about the problems of young people, about unemployment, all these things”. In the longer term, Maklouf wants to set up a permanent filmmaking institute in Benghazi.

Funding is still an issue. But he is preparing a fictional short film, using untrained actors, and he has been collecting footage to make a definitive first-hand documentary of the uprising. “People here have never had the chance to express themselves. And we must record and document our history. In the West this is taken for granted.”

Other exiled or expatriate Libyans are now returning to play their part. Over a coffee in the souk, Khalid Mattawa, a Libyan poet and professor at the University of Michigan, tells me he plans to screen a series of European films here.

His ceramicist wife, Reem Gibriel, has arranged for a series of artists’ videos to be projected on to Tripoli’s streets. A new youth group, the National Awareness Movement, is planning to hold the first Tripoli Human Rights film festival in November.

“When I first came here last September, the atmosphere was electric,” Naziha Arebi says. “Tripoli had just been liberated and everybody was still in this revolutionary spirit. I came back to the UK and I just felt, what am I doing here?”

Her short is now lined up to play festivals in the UK and US. “It’s hard making films in Libya full stop,” she says. Being a female filmmaker is even harder. “My Libyan family think I’m doing a man’s job. But I’m sure there are a lot of women here who would like to be filmmakers, and there are a lot of stories to be told. We’ve had a patriarchal society for a very long time.”

She also recalls having her camera snatched from her hand in August, just across the street from where we are talking, for taking pictures of Salafist militants demolishing a Sufi mosque — a precursor to the events that led to the death of Stevens in Benghazi.

“They didn’t have freedom of speech under Gaddafi, either,” she says. “Now everyone’s having their say. We have to be careful about making [the militants] a marginalised group. That just makes them stronger. I don’t know how we’re going to deal with this. But we have to start telling our own stories.”