Freedom Fields


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Freedom Fields
"Arebi's patiently observational film is full of small moments that encapsulate horrific prejudice or warm, resilient humour." | Photo: Courtesy of TIFF

Since the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has become a more liberal country in many ways, but the power struggles that followed the end of the dictatorship saw women's rights become a lot less secure. In an era when religious influences on government are significant and when women are increasingly finding their familiar freedoms arbitrarily curtailed, Naziha Arebi's documentary follows three football-crazy teenagers as they fight for the right to represent their country.

Politicians say that they support the team. That may be true, but what does that support mean if it doesn't turn into action. They say they they can't let them play because of the security situation. It's true that there have been death threats, but isn't restricting the team's activities essentially punishing the wrong people? On a night when they men's team achieves victory, fans tear through the streets cheering and beeping their car horns in celebration. The picture couldn't be more different.

Surrounded by his followers, and angry imam rants about 'nudity' and complains that the managers "choose tall, young, pretty girls," as if they could expect to win just as easily with a team comprised of short middle-aged women. “Is it a love of control? Or fear?” the women ponder, confounded by this situation. It's not simply that they feel aggrieved by being treated this way, it's that they can't comprehend it. It's as if it belongs to another universe or another time which persists in trying to impose itself on their own.

Though it has no grip on them psychologically, it has significantly impacted the way they play. In one scene we seem them literally working to create a level playing field, clambering around pulling up clumps of weed by hand to clear up an old pitch they have been given access to so that they will at least have a safe place to practice. Their muscles are well developed and they're fast; their basic passing skills are good; yet they have no idea how to go about standard moves like making a throw-in. A sympathetic foreign official provides advice. It seems it's something the men's team isn't great at either.

Familiar with a game that has flexible rules, some of the young women resent being told that they must use the standard 11 player set-up to take on foreign teams. They're confident that they could thrash them at sevens. There's a naive charm about these scenes, a reminder of the passion often found in the amateur game, so easily lost when it is required to be more formal. What's more, they don't expect to win - they just want the chance to try.

Some of the women have already faced severe challenges in other parts of their lives. One of them is among 30,000 people dispersed from Tawergha and left for years with no real home. Another, however, has a father willing to do all he can to support the team and beaming with pride at his daughter's talent. There's a suggestion that this is what it turns on - the unquestioning love of a parent who has never valued his child less for not being a son.

Arebi's patiently observational film is full of small moments that encapsulate horrific prejudice or warm, resilient humour. There is no fairytale ending but the stubborn refusal of another generation of women to be treated as second class citizens makes its mark. This is about much more than kicking a ball.

Reviewed on: 28 Feb 2019
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Documentary spanning six years in the life of Libya’s nascent women’s football scene.
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Director: Naziha Arebi

Year: 2018

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: Libya

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