Freedom Fields by British Libyan director Naziha Arebi follows three Libyan women and their football team in post-revolution Libya, placing football right at the intersection of women’s rights and oppression. Women played a key role in the Libyan revolution, initiating the first protests, lobbying, smuggling arms and cooking food on the frontlines. In the first national elections women were voted in as key decision makers. However, after this hopeful first step, the country took a different path and women have since been squeezed out of the equation. Civil war, assassinations and the presence of ISIS is not the Libya these women had fought for.
Arebi’s father left Libya in the 70’s at a time when many Libyan exiles were finding a new life in the UK. In 2011 she travelled to Libya, meeting Libyans her own age for the first time. When she found the Libyan women’s football team, a group of women full of fire and hope for a new future, they immediately took her in and made her one of them. “Sport does that” says Arebi; “it has the ability to develop deep trust and relationships, which in turn forged a real intimacy within making the film. This results in an intense rawness and closeness, which has not been seen out of Libya before.”
The women who make up the team come from different social and political backgrounds, different tribes and different classes, living in an environment plagued by war, paranoia, social constraints and corruption. They bond together over the love of playing football.
As a female filmmaker of dual heritage, Arebi had a viewpoint into their lives that many never get to see, especially given the nature of Libya’s patriarchal segregated society. This duality allowed her to bridge cultural and gender norms to shed light on a different side of Libya and the region through intimate yet universal stories rarely seen on screen.
The team existed for eight years before the revolution, without managing to play a single match. As the film begins, just after the revolution, they wait hopefully for the Libyan Football Federation to allow them to start training again. Arebi then captures the retaliation from extremists and society as the team is banned from travelling to Germany for its first ever tournament. Years later, just as resignation starts creeping in, they manage to travel to Beirut and play their first ever international tournament in front of an audience.
Back in Libya, their hopes reinvigorated, the players start to make plans for the future. Not only for their team, but wider than that: how to change society, on and off the field and become role models for the next generation of young girls. The human ability to re-invent, to find strength and spirit, even when we feel we have lost everything, becomes the core essence of the film.
“I was embedded in these women’s lives and them in mine, watching them grow up over a period of five years from a national women’s football team into accidental activists. The film became more about a wider struggle, and how they are now trying to change things for the next generation. It is about people, women, individuals fighting to attain their dreams, their goals,” says Arebi, “it is about having the power to dream, to have a choice to carve your own future and to impact those around you, even if just for 90 minutes on a field. It is a testament to taking action and finding strength in the face of adversity. A love letter to a place, to sisterhood, to the power of the team and community.”
Claudia Verajao’s Ama-san also has strong themes of sisterhood and community. Literally translating as “women of the sea” the ama diving women trace their origins back thousands of years. Their story sets them apart as trailblazers of the female condition. While men were out hunting or fishing in high sea, generally for extended periods of time, women, in order to provide for their families, had to find other means of sustenance. During the winter they would work in the fields and when warmer weather came along, being close to the coast, they would gather in groups, on the beach, to catch shellfish, which they would then sell. The pearls from the oysters they sold associated them with a symbol of power, beauty and spirituality.
In Wagu, a small fishing village on the coast of the Ise Peninsula, the women’s maritime life begins when the cherry trees blossom. The Sakuras arrive along with spring and fill the streets with light and color. The fishing dock gets busier and the ceremonies signalling the changing season begin in the temples. About 50 women dive in Wagu everyday. Among them are the ones who sail in the Minemaru, a small blue boat that leaves every morning with 7 Amas aboard, spanning the generations. This group of women came together about 30 years ago and they haven’t stopped diving since.
Diving allows them to be independent and, in some families, diving women were the only sole source of income. This phenomenon, in a country as patriarchal and conservative as Japan, is rare even today. But this film is about the resolution, or the refusal, of a perceived contradiction between the Japanese women and the Ama-San. It refutes the tendency to pigeon hole everyone’s place in society, be it as members of the fishing community or as women, mothers and grandmothers in a family, women who hunt at sea, or women whose family lives anchor them to land.
Freedom Fields screens at The Riverfront, Newport, and Aberystwyth Arts Centre on Tuesday 26th March. Producer Flore Cosquer will be present to give a Q&A.
Ama-san screens at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Theatr Gwaun Fishguard and Theatr Clwyd, Mold.