Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2014: ‘First to Fall’

Libyans abroad learned about what was going on back home via media of diverse sorts; YouTube and news reports, videos sent by people still in the country.

“The guys love the camera,” says Hamid, “They think that somebody is there filming them, caring about them. If somebody dies, they have a memory of this guy.” Just so, as Hamid watches footage he’s shot on the battlefield in Libya, he smiles. The men who see his camera turn to it, smile and gesture, point to their weapons or their vehicles, then call out, “God is great.”

The men are gathered in 2011 to fight Muammar Gaddafi. As recounted in Rachel Beth Anderson’s First to Fall, the rebels come from all over the world, including Canada, home to 26-year-old Hamid and his best friend Tarek, 21. The film, which is screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on 17 and 18 June, follows Hamid and Tarek as they travel from Montreal to Benghazi, moved to take action when they watch Gaddafi on their laptops.

More precisely, their horror at the dictator’s increasingly violent policies is made clear for you, watching the documentary, in two scenes that show the young men, both students, watch their laptops. The point is a compelling one, that Libyans living abroad, with family or not, learned about what was going on back home via media of diverse sorts, on YouTube and news reports, on videos sent by people they knew still in country.

The varieties of images, and the stories they tell, speak to the variety of experiences, for individuals and communities, emerging forces and organized rebels (like the Freedom Group, joined by Hamid and Tarek). Some of the fighters, as Hamid realizes and shows with his camera, want to document what they do and how they feel. Others operate unseen, or at least unrecorded.

As each piece of the experience in Libya might be disparate from or similar to others, their self-representations and calls to action serve different functions. First to Fall makes clear the disjointed structures of the rebellion, its passions and dedications, as well as the occasional ignorance.

This much is visible in Tarek and Hamid’s initial conversations about their expectations, what it might mean to fight, to shoot or be shot at. If they’re not trained soldiers, they have, as one says, “played Call of Duty.” When they arrive in Benghazi, they share moments of revelation and excitement, stopping off for chocolate snacks, giggling. When they’re separated by dint of Hamid’s apparent skills compared to Tarek’s lack of same, they keep in touch when they can, doing their best to learn their new roles and hoping to be reunited.

At his training camp in Misrata, Hmiad observes as you watch young men march and wield guns that the “quality of training is not very good at all.” When Tarek arrives at last, he feels as if he’s “achieving a dream.” Part of that dream is that they can be together, but part is that they’re living out an imagined sort of worthy boys’ behavior, fighting for their country, fighting against the tyrant.

While you watch trainees do drills or play ping-pong, Tarek says, “Guys that you see around here, sometimes they’re just normal people, they learn how to use weapon, how to fire, how to do everything just right now.” And after right now, they might go back to their lives, the ones they had before the war, the ones they miss now.

Hamid takes up his camera repeatedly, seeing it as a weapon in itself, understanding the value of reporting events to audiences around the world, as well as documenting “guys” for their families. Tarek’s situation is slightly more complicated than Hamid’s, in that he hasn’t told his parents what he’s up to; instead, he’s answering missives with short notes that exams are going fine. “I don’t like lying to them,” he says, “but I have to.”

In their immediate now, which the film portrays in handheld footage, what they have to do is survive. These scenes — less ordered into story than offered up as hectic moments, not necessarily chronological, and not necessarily coherent — can be harrowing and alarming, and not only because it shows explosions and shooting and blood, “lots of blood,” as Hamid comments.

These images reinforce the function of the filmmaker, the storyteller, as they make sense in a series of contexts, introduced or narrated, say, but also convey the utter chaos of the fighting. Rebels and Libyan soldier alike are stranded at various points, shooting I directions that may or may not be right, reeling, injured, retreating and running ahead. “You turn and you find your friend, bleeding maybe injured, maybe dying,” says Hamid. You turn and your life is changed forever. “I’ve never seen people dying before,” he says, eyes down, not looking at the camera. “That never happened, so how am I gonna be normal again?”

This, of course, is how First to Fall must end, with lives transformed. That they come in to war so hopeful, so misinformed, and so sure of themselves, makes Hamid and Tarek like so many other fighters in so many other places. And yet their experiences are also their own, and revealed here, by cameras that help them and others to know, to have memories of so many guys.

RATING 8 / 10