I’ve made a lot of hours of television over the years, but I think I’m proudest of Sunday’s Libya episode. I believe it is the best piece of work I’ve ever been part of. Some of that pride comes from recalling how difficult it was. My crew and I are not exactly seasoned veterans when it comes to shooting in “conflict zones”. We had to adapt to a whole new style of shooting — where prior preparation, instead of being a religion — became a security risk. Destinations couldn’t/shouldn’t — to the greatest extent possible, know we were coming. We had to learn to keep moving, spending only a short period at each location before moving on. We changed hotels frequently, spent as little time as possible milling about between vehicle and destination, refrained from social media, rarely went out for dinner off-camera.
Whether any of this was “necessary” is beside the point. Libya is a place where there is every likelyhood that everywhere you go and with everyone you meet, you will be greeted warmly, treated generously, welcomed with a smile or a thumbs up. It is also a place where very bad things happen to nice people—where things can go very, very wrong in a heartbeat.
While we were there, the close associate of one of our interview subjects was kidnapped. In Misrata, a popular elected official was assassinated with a silenced pistol. In Benghazi, the British Embassy was telling its citizens to leave. Generally speaking, highly trained security dudes do not want to even consider their idiotic on-camera “talent” charges anywhere near weapons—much less imagine the possibility of their operating one. During one tense moment, I was blithely reminded that “selector is on the left, clip release on the right. Extra clips in the seat back—and above you.”
It was not uncommon for my crew and I to be roused by our security late at night, told to pack our bags, grab our passports, get ready to head for the airport. These incidents were usually followed by group discussions—borderline arguments, really—where we would debate the issue of “stay or go”. I am very, very grateful to my stressed out crew that we stayed. As you will see the amazing result of their work on the screen.
Again, I’d like to underline that none of the stress, the heightened security measures, the omnipresence of weapons (wielded by the young, militia members from Misrata who looked after us when things started to get..tense) meant that anything bad happened to any of us. There were NO near death experiences. No close calls. (Okay. A bottle rocket ricocheted into my hair. Setting it momentarily on fire. It hurt for a second. Ouch.)
Everywhere WE went, people were, more often than not, lovely to us. At one point, we unwittingly rolled up on the front gates of the internal security forces’ HQ, intending to shoot some cool graffiti. Some very sinister looking dudes were extraordinarily and unusually cool to us. Almost anywhere else, we would have been arrested immediately. In Misrata, the overwhelming concern of the various “militias” seemed to be to keep us safe, to keep order, to not let their city—for which they’d fought so hard—slide back into chaos. Even the Tripoli militia who you’ll see shutting us down while trying to shoot in the ruins of Gadaffi’s palace complex—they weren’t overtly hostile per se. It was more an armed version of a bureaucratic squabble over jurisdiction. These things happen when you’re talking about a “new” nation emerging from 40 years of maniacal autocracy. There is not, currently, much of a government. Order, to a great extent, is a DIY affair, maintained on what one might call: a volunteer basis.
What will stick with me about Libya, however, is not the tension—or all the things that might have gone wrong but didn’t. What will stick with me is the faces of the people we met—most of them very young. Young people in their twenties who, only a few weeks before the rebellion, were playing PS2, studying medicine, working abroad, learning to skateboard—who then rushed to fight. Again and again, these young people looked at our cameras and, in answer to a simple question, told us extraordinary things. The mix of hopefulness and pain in their faces is something I will always remember.
At one point, one young man, who had helped storm the Gaddafi compound, sat down with me to eat American style fast food chicken at KFC knock-off, “Uncle Kentacki”. “This is the taste of freedom”, he said, joyously, un-ironically—and with considerable pride. There was something beautiful in that.
The food in Libya is often delicious—with influences from Moorish Spain, Italy, across North Africa. The seafood in particular is excellent. It is a beautiful country—with perhaps the best preserved (and fantastically under-attended) ancient Roman City in the world—the magnificent Leptis Magna.
But what I hope people take away from this episode is a picture, a glimpse, of WHO we are talking about when we talk about Libya—and Libyans. It is a far more nuanced, complicated matter than what we might get from brief news stories. I met a lot of people I liked. I hope you will like them too.