In the dingy backstreets of Libya, illuminated only by the headlights of parked cars, a group of women play football. A not uncommon sight in other places is warped eerily by the clandestine nature of the game, but the need for these women to play under the cover of darkness soon becomes apparent.
How does one persevere in the face of adversity? For the privileged among us in this world, adversity means your local Starbucks has run out of soya milk. For the women of Naziha Aerbi's debut documentary Freedom Fields, though, perseverance means risking their lives on a daily basis, circumventing death threats and torrents of abuse from their fellow Libyans, and dealing with daily setbacks and constant intimidation from everyone around them, all just to enable them to pursue their passion.
For five years following the 2011 Libyan uprising, British-Libyan filmmaker Arebi followed the journey of Libya's de facto women's football team, a group of dedicated women whose only "crime" was a desire to represent their country in the world of competitive sport just like the revered Libyan men's football team. However, in a shattered, post-revolution society, it remains all too easy for the televised words of social and religious leaders to sow the seeds of condemnation that grow into national hatred.
"Is she the daughter of a Jew," one Imam puts it eloquently, "or an atheist? No, written on her father's ID card is 'Muslim'." Such far from subtle vitriol adds fuel to the sexist undercurrents in the Middle East, and the preposterous idea that "tall, young, beautiful girls showing their legs" — even though most of the team wear head-to-toe covering — and playing a sport apparently meant only for men, completely blows people's minds. Such a heinous, immoral idea would surely cause the earth itself to spin off its axis. "Where are God's boundaries?" the Imam asks a group of men who participated in a revolution that led to countless deaths, injuries and displacements and now spend their time persecuting women for wanting to play sport. Indeed, God's boundaries do need to be checked.
Arebi keeps the documentary intimate and character-centred, focusing on a trio of women within the team whose ever-changing journey during the five years of filming provides the narrative for the 97 minute movie. She tells the audience that filming was fraught with difficulties; she was met with hostility and suspicion, for example, not just because she was a woman, but also she was a woman who barely spoke Arabic and was carrying a camera around.
"Who is she, they probably thought, is she a journalist? Is she a spy?" Arebi recalls. She laughs as she recounts the problem that her crew faced when trying to film something as simple as the characters running in the park. Due to the country's dire situation, she explains, the situation was changing constantly. "We had to bargain for weeks just to get simple shots." With different factions controlling specific areas, filming was an uphill struggle. Sometimes even the cameraman was unable to do his job because of gender restrictions, and so Arebi was often left alone with the camera in very dangerous circumstances.
When one character attempts to leave Libya to attend a football event and has an extremely tense conversation with a soldier at the border, for example, Arebi keeps the camera down, leaving the audience with nothing to see but a blank screen, which serves to amplify the desperate begging and bartering going on. It is a gut-wrenching experience, and the pain in the character's voice coupled with the audience's fear of what the soldier is about to do makes for an edge-of-your-seat few moments.
At the beginning of the documentary, one of the three main protagonists, the emotionally-charged and passionate Halima, muses that, as Libyans, "We had many beginnings, but only beginnings." This was a reference to the many fleeting revolutions that her country has endured. She is giddy with hope for the future, eagerly awaiting the change that her country fought so hard for, filled with hopes of pursuing football with her friends and teammates in this new chapter. The elation is short lived.
As time progresses, the girls find themselves facing constant dead-ends, being banned from going to international tournaments and given no assistance from the Libyan Football Federation that was supposed to be their main supporter, despite having been allowed to play under the previous regime. With their dreams of playing professionally and being accepted by their country in tatters, many of the girls turn to more practical goals like professional careers off the field and starting families, including the trio that lead the documentary. Stoic, level-headed Fadwa becomes an engineer; athletic and optimistic Nama remains a refugee in her own country, as one of the 30,000 kicked out of their hometown of Tarwegha; and Halima studies to become a doctor whilst still holding onto the evanescent dream of playing football.
"Girls are born and grow up to get married," opines Fadwa. "This is it, the story of life. If you haven't done this, you haven't done it right." In doing so she reveals that Freedom Fields isn't just a story about football; it is a story of women struggling to exist freely in a society that is constantly beating them down. The director's decision to include recurring shots of wedding dresses and wedding dress shops is interesting; the theme of marriage is ever-present, an expectation shared by all of the characters as they are pressured persistently into choosing married life over their passion for football.
Four years down the line, the girls reunite and finally attend an international tournament in Lebanon, meeting with women from across the Arab world and playing football together. After a disastrous altercation between the team and their suppressive management — from the same federation that abandoned them in the first place — they return home to Libya intent on nurturing the future generation of female athletes and set up their own NGO to facilitate the teaching of young girls who want to play the beautiful game.
Despite five hellish years of blood, sweat and tears, the girls of Freedom Fields demonstrate that perseverance in the face of adversity is an arduous challenge with the potential for happiness and success. "With a lot of will, determination and deep conviction, we can hope for a good change," Arebi tells the audience. "Freedom Fields was supposed to finish filming in 2013, but the core and essence of the film was always the same… It is important to show the different sides of a place, and following the girls' journey was a beautiful way to explore Libyan culture and society."
According to Assia, a member of the team who constantly challenged oppressive authority, "The ending of the film is a new beginning whereby football is not only a game, it is also a tool to help end discrimination." She uses the analogy of being in a boat at sea and not realising how far you've travelled until you look behind you to explain how she felt when she first watched the film. "I cried my heart out… It summarised our struggles and hardships in less than 90 minutes. You must never surrender, and keep fighting for your dreams and your rights."
Halima, having fulfilled her dream of getting married and becoming a doctor, reveals to the audience that she is now pregnant. If it is a girl, she vows, her daughter will be the best female footballer in all of Libya.