Witness joins a group of Libyan rebel fighters defending the frontline in Misrata and uncovers an extraordinary portrait of ordinary men at war.
What is it like to fight on the frontline? Witness joins the ‘Martyr’s Brigade’ fighting outside Misrata in Libya.
Abubaker Maiteig was a teacher in the UK until footage of the siege of Misrata prompted him to return home. Now Abubaker, his brother Mohammed and the other men in his small unit live daily with the possibility of death, coping as best they can with the danger, stresses and routine boredoms of daily life in a revolutionary war.
Holding the Line is an extraordinary portrait of ordinary citizens at war.
By Patrick Wells
In the summer of 2011, I travelled to the besieged Libyan city of Misrata and spent three weeks living with a group of Libyan rebel fighters on the Dafniya frontline outside town.
Holding the Line is the result, a snapshot of the lives of citizen soldiers and medics as they live day and night under loyalist artillery fire defending the place they grew up in.
As well as documenting life on the frontline, the film also attempts to explore the disconnect between the ‘real’ experience of war and the way it is so often portrayed. This theme was especially pertinent in Libya because the fighters were ordinary people with no military training, whose only preconceptions of war came from the media, computer games and Hollywood films.
In the West, we are constantly bombarded by representations of conflict. However, so often the people who create and disseminate these images have no experience of war, or are in some way using its associated values to sell something. Like sex, war sells.
Those of us in the media who document war are not immune from interpreting it through the same illusory framework of understanding, also partly because it is a formula that reliably sells the story to our editors or to the public. When we go to a warzone, we therefore find ourselves imposing this long-accepted way of seeing and relating onto what we experience.
For example, many war documentaries are replete with elaborate cinematography and dramatic music, none of which are present in wars.
Combatants also have strong preconceptions of what they think war will be like and tend to impress these notions on reality, becoming the stars of their own war movie or computer game. For some, the authentic experience of war breaks this illusion, for others it does not, and sometimes it becomes a way of coping with the banal and awful truth of what we experience on battlefields.
This disconnect can affect all participants in conflict, just as it did in 1917 when the 24-year-old soldier/poet Wilfred Owen aptly referred to it as “the old lie”.
In the hope of maximising authenticity, I shot my film very straight with a basic camera. All the material comes from the environment in which I was filming. There is no voiceover or archive footage and the music is taken from recordings I made of the fighters playing their own instruments.
I did not manipulate the colours or use special effects and I shot the film as I was seeing it, handheld. I did not pack a tripod.
To get the young fighters to open up about the realities of becoming killers, about fear, loss and death, I shot the film on my own and lived on the frontline with them until they trusted me enough to talk freely and critically.
Spending long periods of time there was a lottery. The fighters had not dug many trenches to protect themselves and there was the risk of being hit by random shelling at any time.
However, as a filmmaker I did not have to file stories each day, and as a result I could put in the time with my subjects and hope to get more than the usual shots of rebels waving their guns in the air and doing what they felt was expected of them in front of the camera.
Shooting alone meant there were no other crew members to distract my subjects or water down the intimate relationship I fostered with them. I could keep a low profile and if necessary hide in the back of cars and ambulances to get through checkpoints.
My thoughts on the subject of this film were cemented by a long talk I had with Tim Hetherington over dinner in Benghazi days before he was killed in Misrata on April 20. If I could show the film to anyone now it would be him, and I dedicate it to his memory and also to Feras Asheni, Anton Hammerl and Chris Hondros, more wonderful people I knew who were destroyed by war.
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