Freedom Fields is both a love letter to the sport and a sharp critique of post-revolution Libya – penned with hope, but also inked with frustration. In spite of dreams deferred and hopes postponed, a football team lives out their love for the game, even as the field becomes a battleground where the religious, political and personal converge.
“We had many beginnings, but only beginnings…beginnings without endings.” In the darkness, lit just barely by the warm glow of car headlights, a group of females gather, kicking footballs – a clandestine training session. In another corner of the Libyan city, a house is out of power. Under the feeble light of a candle, Halima traces photographs with her finger – here a picture of her glorious younger self, holding a “best goalkeeper” prize; to its right, a photograph of “Tarik El Taib”, a male national team footballer for Libya; next to it, photographs of the world’s greats: Messi, Xavi, Iniesta.
There is a progression here, from the personal to the national, to the international. Yet, these dreams are chased, ambitions spoke of, only in whispers, only in the shadows. “I hope it’s a sweet beginning. God willing, this time will be different.” Freedom Fields, a debut film from Libyan/British filmmaker Nahiza Arebi, is a force of art, filled with passion, courage and rightful indignation. It follows three women and their football team over five years in post-revolution Libya. The documentary premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and is having a run in the theatres, ahead of the Women’s World Cup which kicks off next week in France.
The Libyan football team’s simple ambition of playing their beloved sport for their country gets swept up in a storm of political agendas and heterosexual norms dictated by religion and culture. At one point, the sound of raucous laughter and joyous singing of the team in a van gets abruptly cut to the jarring, hoarse voiceover of a livid religious leader, “Whose daughter is this?” yells the imam, “Just what our country needs…A women’s football team.” Tensions and opposition against the team grow. The women have to train under the watchful eyes, of not just coaches, but also soldiers holding rifles sent to guard them – a constant reminder of the bigger battles lying outside the football field. Political instability and timid leadership at the football association keep their dreams on tenterhooks.
While there is something deeply empowering about the team’s sheer determination and unbridled passion for the sport, the inescapable spectre of heterosexual norms weighs heavily on their ambitions. They are expected to cover up, marry, raise children, support the household – not pull on jerseys, kick balls, compete. Yet, these struggles imbue the women’s sporting endeavours with greater meaning that no man’s little football kickaround will ever be able to do. The women smash glass ceilings, redefine gender norms and reinvent their roles in society.
Towards the end of the film, when the Libyan team finds a way to play a match with the Egypt women’s team, their jerseys carry their names but no flag. They are still not recognised officially as the country’s national team. Personal dreams have been fought for and achieved; they have broken new ground for women’s football and tasted victory, even before the first whistle is blown at kick-off. Yet, there is something that remains unfinished on the national stage, and hope remains – that these promising beginnings will have better endings.