The Transformation of Civilians Into Soldiers: Rachel Beth Anderson and Tim Grucza’s ‘First to Fall’

Rachel Beth Anderson and Tim Grucza's First to Fall is an intimate portrait of two young men who abandon their comfortable lives in Canada to fight in the revolution in their home country of Libya. Following these men into the battlefield, Anderson and Grucza's documentary captures the various stages at play in which they transform from civilians into soldiers. A second-hand video camera becomes Hamid’s ticket to the front where he documents battles to liberate Misrata, a city famous for the ferocity of its citizens. Hamid eventually earns a gun and becomes a full-fledged soldier with an AK-47 in one hand and his video camera in the other. Meanwhile Tarek joins a training camp and eventually a katiba (freedom fighter battalion) in Misrata. In a battle to liberate Zawya, his hometown, Tarek’s life will change forever. First to Fall screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival Wednesday, June 18, followed by a Skype discussion with filmmakers Anderson and Grucza.

FilmLinc asked the directors included in the upcoming Human Rights Watch Film Festival to give some insight on filmmaking and tackling issue-oriented work prior to the launch of the series.

First to Fall

Rachel Beth Anderson and Tim Grucza, UK/USA, 2013, 80m

Resposes by Anderson:

On documenting the transformations of civilians to soldiers:

I had been living and working in Cairo as a journalist prior to the Arab Spring. When the Egyptian uprising began in 2011, I found myself filming my own friends as they turned from everyday civilians into revolutionaries. Their worlds as they’d known it were quickly consumed by protests, tear gas, and risking their own livelihoods for hope of a better future.  I was fascinated by how quickly they rose to this "call to action," never wavering as danger increased, until the current dictator was removed and they were celebrating at what they felt was a victory at the time. 

It seemed natural to me that I should cover the next country, which happened to be Libya, where everyday people were rising up. Following the youth in Libya was an entirely different experience than Egypt, because they weren’t just battling tear gas, but were up against Gaddafi’s army who had turned his guns on his own people. Specifically I found myself fascinated with stories such my main protagonists, Libyan expatriates Hamid and Tarek, who were young men my age, studying at university like I did, living a free and comfortable life, and had felt it their personal duty to give up everything, travel thousands of miles and go to war as untrained soldiers. I didn’t know where these young men would end up but felt compelled to follow them as they attempted to achieve their goal of becoming a soldier on the frontline.

I had thought that Libya would be similar to the length of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, lasting only a few weeks, but as cities across the country turned into active front lines the few weeks turned into eight months. I stayed for the majority of the war because as the fight waged on and the news cycle changed, this meant journalists were sent elsewhere, but people were dying and the civilian struggle wasn’t over. I knew there needed to be a visual document of the transformation of the young men who were fighting and also the country of Libya.

On film for activism:

There is a popular idea among the populations in present day uprisings that images may strike as powerfully as a bullet. Yet we’ve learned throughout history in 'David and Goliath' face-offs, such as Libya, the battle against a dictator cannot be won with a camera alone, and picking up a gun becomes another solution. Whether you believe in violent or nonviolent activism this film shows both sides of how young revolutionaries attempted to create change in Libya. The film shows the need for the Libyan people to find how they could fight for their beliefs, a feeling they hadn’t been allowed to express for four decades. There was a shared sentiment among the people of Libya that Tarek explains at the start of the film, “If this (revolution) passed without me on the frontline, I will regret this thing for my entire life." Whether their choice was to fight with a camera or with a gun, they empowered themselves to take control of their lives. Bottom line, this film promotes the belief that in the end positive change is still possible and being passive is the enemy of change.

On shooting in the field and her relationship with her subjects:

Where to begin… Well, to start, I didn’t have all the equipment I now use when I’m in the field and that caused a few logistical issues. For instance only having three working memory cards, there were days I would be filming on the frontline while simultaneously transferring footage from my computer (left inside a rebel car) onto hard drives so I wouldn’t miss a moment with my guys on camera. Another complicated challenge was finding a way to capture the day-to-day events in my characters' lives while staying safe.

Trust with my characters was the most important element in the process. At certain times in Libya I had no choice but to depend on them to provide food, put a roof over my head, and to be my ear to the ground as they were my main sources on the current situation. What made the trust work was respect, as they knew I was taking a risk just being in Libya, and they protected me like a sister. But the most challenging was that in spending almost every waking moment with one of my characters it became incredibly tiresome to keep shooting, as your mind is constantly analyzing each passing moment, should you be filming and doing your job, or sometimes do you need to turn off the camera and just be a friend.

On expressing the complexities of war:

As in any war there are casualties of the body and soul, but this film provides insight into common day warfare and the type of people who are pulled to the “romance” of the battlefield, and the potential for change. What you see is there is not one type of individual, but a shared sense of duty and the promise of a better future for all those who find themselves on the frontline. It takes guts to watch a film that may go against your own ideas of conflict, and even harder to contemplate what it means to challenge your beliefs. At the end of the film with some reflection I hope that the audiences gains the understanding of the camaraderie, life and loss of those who go to battle and that drastic change and revolution aren’t ever clean. This is meant to be a timeless tale of boys at war; it could be set in Syria, Iraq, the American Revolution as it universally expresses that when a war ends it isn’t really over, and there are still permanent mental and physical scars for those who fought and for the civilians whose backyards became an active frontline. This film aims to capture the first step, albeit violent, toward change to a better life for the people of Libya.

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