‘First to Fall’ (2013), the debut film by US video journalist-turned filmmaker Rachel Beth Anderson, follows the journey of two Libyan friends Hamid and Tarek, who leave their comfortable lives in Montreal, Canada to return to Libya to fight in the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi’s regime.
The film captures the evolution of their characters from naïve young men to worn out rebel fighters in the bitter reality of a war with dramatic consequences.
Like thousands of Libyans living in exile, Hamid and Tarek have family members who had been tortured or killed by Muammar Gaddafi; so their fight against Gaddafi is more than a duty towards their home country: it’s a deeply personal call that they must heed for the well-being and future of their families.
Neither have held a gun before, and Tarek is visibly apprehensive about fighting, but both determinedly fly to liberated Benghazi in early 2011 before making their way to Misurata, Hamid’s hometown and the site of one of the bloodiest battles during the Libyan uprising.
In Misurata, we follow Hamid as he befriends the Libyan Freedom Fighters, picks up a camera and joins a group of citizen journalists who film and stream the fighting onto the internet. Hamid is fearless, pushing the boundaries and the patience of some of the fighters as he follows them straight into open fire with his camera. Visibly thrilled at being at the heart of danger and action, he quickly replaces his camera with an actual weapon, and joins the frontline resistance against Gaddafi’s troops.
Hamid spends the greater part of ‘First to Fall’ joking around and cracking sharp one-liners, too proud to express fear or weakness, and perhaps to distract himself from the horrific reality of fighting Gaddafi’s ruthless and well-armed militias. Sometimes, his pleasure for weapons and shooting comes across as an adolescent living out his 'call of duty' fantasies, a concept only further emphasised by a scene where the fighters return from the frontline to relax by playing similar video games.
Hamid’s humour and bravado helps him build repertoire with his fellow fighters, most of whom look barely adolescent with fresh, naïve faces that soon disintegrate into weary ghosts once the fighting escalates into a full-scale invasion by Gaddafi’s forces.
When Tarek joins Hamid’s battalion later on, the joking continues but it’s clear that Tarek is less prepared and less enthusiastic about the ‘thrill’ of war. The film repeatedly touches on the rebels’ lack of training and amateur fighting, often to comic effect, including one sequence in which a fighter falls off his rocket launcher.
As the fighting intensifies, the film escalates in momentum, with many raw and violent scenes that capture the magnitude of loss, bloodshed and destruction of everyday lives. Destroyed civilian homes and hospital beds carrying scarred and burnt children show the extent of the fighting in Misurata.
Hamid is shot in the leg, and after he’s released from hospital, his outlook is more sombre and his jokes don’t trip off the tongue quite as easily as they once did. It is clear that the suffering of civilians and the daily loss of friends and fellow fighters are taking their toll on his bravado.
Tarek’s experience with the war is more traumatic: he leaves Hamid to fight in Zawya, where his family is close to starving under a siege by Gaddafi’s troops. Of the two men, Tarek is the younger, gentler and more introverted type, and Hamid rightfully fears that something terrible will happen to him. In the next scene, Tarek is in hospital, barely containing his grief and explaining to Hamid through tears that he is completely paralysed from the stomach down. This scene is treated carefully and without a soundtrack; Tarek’s timid words will punch the breath out of you.
There are several powerful scenes in ‘First to Fall’, especially the battle scenes, where the camera zooms in on dying soldiers from both sides, the frantic calls of ‘Allahu Akbar’ as the rebels carry their dying friends to an ambulance, and the sight of disfigured and bandaged children in hospital. The often shaking camera and its proximity to explosions, torn up bodies and live fire reflect the raw intensity of Tarek and Hamid’s experiences; as well as the sheer brutality that they struggled to cope with on a daily basis.
Anderson refrains from making any political commentary, and leaves the narration and analysis to Tarek and Hamid, which proves problematic as both men are either unable or unwilling to dig too deep and express their feelings. Instead, they resort to humour and forced cheerfulness, and particularly Hamid’s bravado as well as the focus on their goofing around behind the frontlines somewhat trivialises their story.
Instead, we are left to read between the lines, to pick up on Hamid’s more subtle expressions and Tarek’s silences to put things into context.
It is only in one of the film’s last scenes where Hamid is finally serious. Filmed one year after the war ended, and sitting in an armchair amidst the wreckage of one of Gaddafi’s compounds, Hamid speaks candidly and straight to the camera, making no attempt at triumph or humour; the war is over and too much has been lost. The physical and psychological scars are evident in Hamid, and this scene is a powerful reminder of the aftermath of the Libyan uprising; like many of his peers, Hamid is furious at the new government’s treatment of the freedom fighters: once they were celebrated as heroes, and today they’re referred to as troublesome 'militias'.
While the film remains loyal to the story of both men, the lack of political context and analysis in certain scenes may leave some nuances lost in translation to an audience unfamiliar with the details of the Libyan uprising.
For example, we’re led into an underground cell full of burnt and rotten bodies without explanation. In another, we’re shown video footage of Gaddafi’s eventual capture; his bloodied face barely visible through the mob attacking and verbally assaulting him. One man’s screams stand out: ‘This is for Misurata, you dog! This is for Misurata!’ Because the film is constrained by the perspective of Hamid and Tarek, we fail to understand the large scale of the bloodshed and destruction of Misurata, which would have contextualised the man’s screams and made that particular scene more meaningful.
Perhaps the most shocking element of ‘First to Fall’ is that it was singlehandedly shot by Anderson, who navigated the male-only battlefields and braved unimaginable risks as an unarmed cameraman caught in open fire. Her relationship with the main characters and the trust she gained are clear in the insider access her camera gains to their private moments. This is most definitely a valiant and commendable debut film by a journalist who made the film after meeting Hamid and Tarek while on assignment in Benghazi in 2011.
Viewers will probably walk away with different interpretations of the film depending on their knowledge of the Libyan uprising and their understanding of Libyan culture. However, the universal themes of friendship, sacrifice and courage are evident in ‘First of Fall’, and audiences will most definitely be moved by the devastating effect the war has on both men and their touching friendship.