On Film and cinema in Libya – Interview with Libyan film critic and festival director Ramadan Salim, by Hans-Christian Mahnke
Ramadan Salim was born 1953 in Azizia, Libya. He is writer, journalist, and film critic, who began writing in 1979 about Libyan literature and never stopped since. His work focuses on Arabic culture in general, and on Magreb literature and cinema in particular. His works include the novels “Journey and Discover” (1997), “Critical Dimension” (2000), and the non-fiction books on cinema named “The individual man in the circle of adventure” (1981) and “Cinema. The horizon and the reality” (1982).
He is the chief editor of the monthly arts magazine “Rainbow”, a journalist at the daily newspaper “February” and a blogger, a film critic and reviewer for various Libyan newspapers and magazines. Ramadan Salim is also the director of forthcoming International Mediterranean Film Festival for Documentary and Short Films (under the auspices of the Libyan Ministry of Culture), 31 May 2012.
Interview conducted by Hans-Christian Mahnke, AfricAvenir, on February 23 & 24, 2012, Luxor, Egypt.
Hans-Christian Mahnke: Dear Ramadan, could you speak a bit about the film industry in Libya, its film production and also about the infrastructure of showing films? I know that Libya has produced six feature films, around 40 short films and 200 documentaries.
Ramadan Salim: You know, Libya is a poor country. Before 1965, we really had nothing. Petrol was discovered in Libya around 1963. Before that, Libya was poor. And Italy, as foreign power, made some short films and documentaries about Libya. After Italy had left the country in 1952 (?), the kingdom of Libya made some short films about the big ancient city Lebtis Magna. This was done for touristic purposes.
The first Libyan feature film was made 1972, the black and white film “The Destiny is very hard” also known as “When Fate Hardens” (‘Indama Yaqsu al-Zaman) by the Libyan filmmaker Abdella Zarok, who also used Libyan actors.
The second feature then was “The Road” (al-Tariq) in 1974 by Mohamed Shaaban.
Around that time, in 1973, we established an organization of cinema, the General Organisation for Cinema, which then made documentary films, about 20 to 25 short films and also was involved in the making of the feature films.
We also then produced the film called “The Green Light” (al-Daw’ al-Akhdar), a co-production directed by Abedalla Mushbahi in 1977, including Egyptian, Tunisian, Moroccan, and Lebanese actors. One can say, an Arabic film.
We then in 1983 also made the war epic ‘Battle of Tagrift” (Ma’rakat Taqraft) by Mushafa Kashem and Mohamed Ayad Driza on the battle between the Italian and Libyan armies.
Then there was a film called “The Bomb Shell” also known as “The Splinter” (al-Shaziya), directed by Mohamed Ferjani which won prizes outside Libya, amongst them 2nd prize in North Korea around 1985.
The last film “Symphony of Rain” (Ma’azufatu al-matar) was made in 1993/4, again by Abdella Zarok.
In 2010, our film organization seized to exist. We stopped producing films.
HCM: Dear Ramadan, can you tell us a bit about the possibility to access Libyan films? How is it possible for a Libyan to watch a Libyan film?
RM: It is not easy to watch a Libyan film for a Libyan. Libyan films are only available at the Organization of Cinema and Theatre in Tripoli, which falls under the Ministry of Culture. But it does not have a library character. The organization has a theatre place where one can watch the original films. But one cannot rent them out. They are not on DVD or so. Only one or two are on VHS. So basically, Libyans don’t have access to Libyan films. We are now thinking to print these films on DVDs. But now it might be better, once a film is made, to make it available on the internet and promote it there. In the end, all people will be able to see it there.
HCM: Libya boasts a few theaters or art galleries. For many years there have been no public theatres, and only a few cinemas showing foreign films. Dear Ramadan, can you inform us about the Libyan cinema halls and its history? Are there cinemas in the country?
RS: Around the 1940s up to the mid 1960s, we had many cinemas, but then they stopped working. I think we had around 14 cinemas alone in Tripoli. Bengasi had around 10 cinemas. We showed films from Italy, Egypt, and also foremost from India and Hollywood.
After 1975 the government took control of all the cinemas. So the cinemas could not buy any films from outside. Everything changed into government hands. Day by day the cinemas stopped existing. They were finished.
Now we will start from the beginning again.
HCM: Speaking about beginnings, you are the director of the International Mediterranean Film Festival for Documentary and Short Films, which will start in May 2012. What do you hope will this festival achieve? How do you see the future and its challenges?
RS: Of course there are many challenges. But we can start. We have many directors, camera men, technical crew. We also have an Academy of Artists.
The academy teaches students how to photograph, teaches directors, editors, and it also provides classes in film history. The academy has many students, every year around 100 to 150. Most of them end up working for TV stations. Technically they don’t apply any differences when working for cinema or TV. We currently have eight TV channels, so it is natural that the graduates end up there. We have to start to rebuild our cinemas. Currently we have around five or six cinema buildings, which we need to renovate and manage. I think it will take about one year to get them running again.
HCM: Are these plans already on the way?
RS: You know, these are all old cinemas with 400 to 500 seats. We are building a new cinema now, a small one, with around 100 to 200 seats.
It will be run by the Libyan Cinema Club. The club will show a film every week, and we will host film seminars. We will also produce some films, based on competitions, for Libyan filmmakers. It will take some time, but not long, I hope. Maybe in one two years we can start. It depends on the money available. Now Libya has to focus on something more important. We need to rebuild our country. One or two years at least, maybe one or two feature films per year, ten short films and documentaries. As I said, it all depends on the money.
HCM: You were saying the International Mediterranean Film Festival is funded by the Libyan Ministry of Culture. Do you think the approach of the new government has changed in regards to cinema?
RS: Before, all our cinemas and films were set in a political context. One person decided. That one person was Muammar Gaddafi. This man decided which films can be produced. E.g. “Battle of Tagrift”, Gaddafi wrote the idea, and he financed the film. He then ordered the Ministry of Culture to produce the film. I believe in short films and documentary filmmaking we had more freedom, but in feature films all was decided by Gaddafi. He was the first to see the end product and then he in unison decided if it can be released.
There was a film called “Leyla” also known as “Searching for Layla al-’Amiriya” (al-Bahth ‘An Layla al-’Amiriya) about a Libyan women named Leyla, which was separated from other women. The film was made 25 years ago, and we are still waiting to see the film. Gaddafi disliked it and until now, we haven't seen it.
The director of that film is an Iraqi, Kasem Hwel, who now lives in Holland. This film “Leyla” is a good example. Only the filmmaker has a copy of the negative. The film was never released in Libya, it was stored in the archives, and we must assume it is lost. This all, because the cinema industry depended on one man. And even now the film is too sensitive. The film and its production is linked to the old regime so that even now it is a delicate issue. The film is linked to the System Gaddafi. What do I mean by that? Gaddafi established a company called “Rays”, which produced five films, one of them is “Earth of fear”. He produced five or six Egyptian films, and his motivation was only to shine with the Egyptian actresses and actors on the red carpet. These actors would visit him, and Gaddafi would, by dealing with these stars, get some of their glamour for himself. These artists were never Libyans, always Egyptians. His son, Al-Saadi Gaddafi, who lives now in Niger, was a producer at a Hollywood company. He produced more than ten Hollywood films. The investments he made there was money of the Libyan people.
And that was the system Gaddafi. All the people, all the money, girls and women, belonged to Mohammed Gaddafi. If one refused to accept this system was either thrown into jail or murdered.
So now, if it takes a year or two to abolish this system, we will make the best of it and start anew. We will make films!