Thieves of light

In slow motion, the worn EU flag flies behind the barbed wire of a camp. The inmates are people whose longed-for oasis of freedom seems far from this place. Cut. A few scenes further and the actor who just started from a small motorboat in Libya is now standing at the Karl Marx Monument in Chemnitz.

It was a few months that aged him a few years: “I would never have left Libya if they hadn’t threatened my family because of my work!” reports Ahmed Abdel Aziz Al Zarrouk Gaddafi, director and actor of his own escape. How this new film turns out? Open. Because his asylum procedure is still ongoing. Or rather, it hasn’t even begun yet: “I’ve been in the initial reception center since October. But because of Corona, I haven’t even had an interview yet. And I would like to get out of here, because there are frequent brawls. Especially the lack of perspective in the pandemic creates tension.”

Der Filmemacher schaut in seiner Heimatstadt Sirte in die Ferne und steht vor einer kargen Landschaft.
He already had big plans back home, but the confusion of civil strife in Libya scuttled them. Photo: thieves of light media production

Hat, suit, tie: Ahmed Gaddafi’s appearance is more fitting at a film awards ceremony than in an asylum seekers’ home. “I fool around a bit with the security guards. They nicknamed me Michael Jackson as a joke, and that’s how they greet me when I come back to the home.” A person who doesn’t let on about his history. Someone who really just wanted to make movies. A student who in 2018 started his own media production company in his home country with friends, they call themselves the Thieves of Light.

Ahmed is from Sirte, born here in 1998. The port city is a crossroads, it lies between the capital Tripoli and the eastern Benghazi, and near the city are the largest oil fields in Africa. It is the hometown of former strongman Muammar Al-Gaddafi. For decades, the country was shaped and stabilized under the ruler. With his death in 2011, the war escalated and state structures disintegrated. “Sirte has been fought over for years, and the city is almost completely destroyed. IS had taken our city in 2016. When the army came, we were initially happy. We hoped that now the atrocities would end. But then other Islamist militias came – it didn’t get much better.”

But the hometown also provides a stage for a bit of hope. Especially after all the destruction and the dreary everyday life of war, Ahmed Gaddafi and his team want to actively work in a positive way. An old atrium that has been unused for years and completely overgrown with undergrowth should be reactivated for this plan: “I had the great wish that a cultural revolution would take place in the city. People should go back to the public and stop thinking about massacres or crimes while sitting in destroyed houses. They should witness our ideas, hopes and narratives for the future of the country, from our eyes.” The idea for a film and theater festival is born – the “Sirte Nights Festival” will take place during the next Ramadan.

Shortly after IS left the city, culture is indeed taking place again in Sirte. Photo: Photo: thieves of light media production

Ahmed and friends from the university start to sweep, renovate and liven up. In the end, 17 people will organize this evening. They are working on a medicine for trauma in a city that is finally seeking peace again. “There were other events in the years before the war that showed films. But that was more for the elite. What we did was the first film festival that was open to everyone in the population.” And so the rows slowly fill until the semicircular amphitheater has more people than seats. Young people also sit on the walls, looking relaxed after years of tension and suffering. The goal of the “Thieves of Light” seems to have been achieved and Ahmed Gaddafi is happy: “I saw in their eyes the contempt for extremism and terror. With them was only love for life, art and culture. The human was back.” All the city’s generations together peacefully and happily, at an evening event – the taste of normalcy is in the air. And this is needed to breathe: “We’ve had enough of war,” says an elderly visitor with a smile.

Unfortunately, it remains a present chapter in the country’s history. The young director also knows this. He calls for a move away from a military solution: “I’ve always said that terrorism is not defeated by weapons, but by thoughts.” Unfortunately, pacifism is of little use when fundamentalists are in charge. It is militias who perceive the festival as a threat: “They arrested me. I don’t want to talk about what exactly happened there. But fortunately I am alive and I was released after a week.” In the photo after his release, Ahmed Gaddafi wears the smile of a victor, a struggling survivor. In no piece does he assume the role of a victim.

Documenting the arrest of the young filmmaker on social media. Source: Twitter

Militias threaten his family because of his work. People who use sharp lenses to record their surroundings are not welcome in Sirte at this time. Ahmed decides to leave his home to protect his loved ones. “If I go back to Sirte now, they would arrest or kidnap me directly as soon as I start making films again. It would be considered a violation of community values or punished for introducing Western culture.”

Something that would have earned an award ends in the loss of home. The filmmaker ends up in Chemnitz. So in the end, what did the “Thieves of Light” accomplish with this event? They did not end the civil war in Libya. But Ahmed Gaddafi and his collective acted entirely on their behalf: they created a moment of light for the people, stolen in a dark time. Even if it became light only for a short time, Ahmed Gaddafi remains optimistic: “One day I will return successfully and organize many festivals. As a director and producer, I will work on many films and until that time, I will fight.”

Video links:

Trailer for the documentary of his own escape:

Sirte Night Festival:

Arrived in a new home but his Odyssee still not finished. Foto: Ahmed Gaddafi

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