Freedom Fields review – Libyan female footballers hit back of the net

Nahiza Arebi’s visually arresting documentary focuses on the courage of the country’s fledgling national women’s team

Where Hollywood opted for facile gender-flipping in its recent Ocean’s 11 remake, it could have been more adventurous in search of meaningful Time’s Up-era material. This superbly made, stirring documentary introduces us to what you might call Fadwa’s 11 – the fledgling Libyan women’s football team. And there’s something of the heist about the clandestine training sessions they are forced to organise in the face of Islamists trying to brandish the red card.

In the film’s desperate final act, as the near-disbanded team fight to attend a showcase international tournament in Lebanon, it even starts to feel like one-last-job territory. The women’s courage and perseverance, as well as their enormous potential symbolic impact for Arab society, shows up Hollywood hashtag feminism for what it is.

Filming over four years following the 2011 revolution, half-British, half-Libyan director Nahiza Arebi focuses on amiable player of the year Fadwa, ice-cream-loving goalkeeper Halima, and the lean and determined Naama, a refugee in Tripoli from Tawergha, 200km to the east. Horribly, the spirit of fear, control and national self-sabotage that dominates the country leaves them less leeway for their passion than the women of sharia Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Beyond the harangues from the madrasas, it is not clear if the establishment is on their side. Claiming to be concerned for their safety, the national football federation’s refusal to let them play internationally is a reminder of #MeToo’s realisation that male endorsement can be another form of control.

As the trio’s football dreams recede for a time, Arebi wisely lets her film taper out into a broader portrait of post-revolution Libya, the women’s frustrations tolling the bell for the strangulation of civil society. Sometimes her strict adherence to the show-not-tell ethos means their stories don’t emerge quite as sharply as they might have done in to-camera interviews; the context can be blurry. I would have loved to know more about the weird handler assigned to them in Lebanon by the federation who, permanently Ray-Banned, appears to have cribbed her personal style straight from Gaddafi.

The upside is that this immersive preference pushes Arebi’s considerable visual skills to the front. Acting as her own cinematographer (as well as writing), her keen eye drinks in the heaving Tripoli streets, from the stunning black-and-gold-toned opening training sequence onwards. And Arebi knows an open goal when she sees one. Rather than any falsely peppy Escape to Victory-style wrap-up, the shots of rows of young Arab girls giddily spurring the team on say everything.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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