The many dreams of Libya

Carmen Gray

DISSENT: Undying patriotism in the face of a country that no longer needs you.

«The dream of Libya has always been with me,» says Khalid Shamis, narrating his documentary The Colonel’s Stray Dogs.

For him, it is a second-hand, inherited dream, and the source of deep ambivalence and uncertainty. Growing up in a leafy suburb of London, Libya remained a place of mystery, closed to him under a brutal dictator who had declared his father an enemy.

The film, which premiered this week at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, charts the assassination of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, but more than that it is a profoundly personal film of and about exile, as Khalid seeks to better understand the underground opposition activities of his father Ashur Shamis, and the risks of investing a family’s sense of belonging in a future land that does not yet exist.

Watch an interview with Khalid Shamis

Illusions and implications

Ashur Shamis had once inhabited and called a version of Libya home, but left the nation because his political resistance to Gaddafi made him a regime target, or as his security service file officially designated him and other dissidents, a «stray dog.»

From London, he and other exiles published a magazine criticising Gaddafi’s activities, and formed the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a revolutionary group determined to use militant force against Gaddafi’s rule by any means possible, training and arming a military to overthrow him and put in place a government with a nationalist Islamist agenda that would enact reforms such as democratic elections.

As a young, enthusiastic dissident, he predicted this would take just a few months; forty years later, Gaddafi is gone, but the Shamis family still remain in the English capital.

The beauty of Khalid’s filmmaking lies in his rejection of blinkered hagiography. This is a director who knows a thing or two about dearly held illusions and has had a lifetime to mull their implications.

The warmth with which he regards his father, or «Baba» as he terms him, is readily apparent, but there is also a wry scrutiny to his consideration of his father’s activities more in line with both the rigour of investigative journalism and an emotionally frank assessment of what may have been lost for the family through this single-minded pursuit of an ideal. Or as he puts it, a feeling «killing Gaddafi was more important to him than living with us.»

There was a conscious effort to keep the children of opposition activists in the dark about their work for their safety (Gaddafi’s active efforts to «liquidate» his detractors abroad meant they all lived in danger). But Ashur’s assertion that their lives were never disrupted emerges as wishful thinking. They were told not to say they were Libyan or talk about what their father did. But how to develop a sense of home in England, if any month they were supposedly returning?

Demystifying and documenting his father’s activities as a dissident so as to better understand the man, as much as to understand the Libya that he spoke of, is a central aim of the director, and in the process he builds a portrait of the psychological landscape of revolution better than films without such a personal stake in the subject.

The necessity for the secrecy of the ‘80s may have faded, but a reticence in being pinned down on details — such as how exactly the Front was funded, and whether it was dealing in blood money or arms — remains, despite Khalid’s direct questioning (items pulled from boxes and cases, such as a glossy weapons catalogue from which his father sat ordering arms, remain as traces of a parallel world operating from the off-limits study of the suburban family home.)

Khalid’s mother Shamela, who hails from South Africa, also side-steps, with her easy humour, from divulging too many details, clearly supportive of her husband, but leaving that world to him, as she raised the children. «I wasn’t fighting his fight for him,» she explains. «You were my revolution.»

A second exile

Powerful archival footage is woven in with the domestic scenes from London, revealing just how much was at stake in opposing Gaddafi’s violent rule. Hangings in a public square in Tripoli, broadcast on Libyan state television, of insurrectionists who tried in 1984 to storm Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound, are shown.

An attempted coup failure that provoked pain and disillusionment in an organisation that moved increasingly away from militancy and towards resignation Gaddafi was there to stay. Written resistance continued, as Ashur founded the website Akhbar Libya and broke news of the Abu Salim massacre, in which 1,276 prisoners were killed by the regime, one of Gaddafi’s covered-up human rights abuses.

Perhaps most tragic of all for Ashur, however, was that even with Gaddafi gone (killed by rebels in 2011), the Libya of before, its social textures and his sense of belonging within it, were long gone. A despondency mixed with his great joy in returning to visit; the new breed governing that had come of age under Gaddafi had no real place for him in government, amid a chaos of militias vying for money and power, and he returned into a second exile, again. Libya, for the Shamis family, remains a dream.


Carmen Gray – A citizen of both New Zealand and Great Britain, Carmen Gray is a freelance film critic, journalist and curator now based in Berlin. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review and has a particular interest in the cinema and history of central and eastern Europe, and has previously lived and worked in both Moscow and Prague.


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