Fractured dreams: The life of a Libyan exile
Muammar Gaddafi occupies a contested space in the histories of postcolonial Africa. What about his Libyan opponents?
Filmmaker Khalid Shamis sits at a table drinking coffee with his mother Shamela in their family home in Croydon, South London. Shamis asks his mother what she knew of his father’s work as a leading member of the opposition to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in exile: was he an arms dealer? A terrorist? A freedom fighter? She shakes her head, avoids the questions, and with a smile insists, “you were my revolution.”
The motifs of revolution, dreams, secret lives, and of exile’s longing, play throughout Shamis’s second feature film, The Colonel’s Stray Dogs (2021). Shamis’s father, Ashur Shamis, was one of Gaddafi’s “stray dogs:” Libyans in exile who coordinated opposition to the regime under threat of “physical liquidation.” Gaddafi occupies a contested space in the histories of postcolonial Africa. While some remember his revolutionary pan-Africanism, support of anticolonial and dissident movements, and uncompromising antagonism towards neocolonial relations with the West, others focus on his authoritarianism, corruption, and violent repression.
Gaddafi targeted his opponents at home and abroad. After an attempted coup in 1983, Gaddafi established new prison complexes, instituted televised public hangings, and increased attacks abroad through bombings and traveling death squads. But Shamis is not interested in litigating Gadaffi’s legacy, though the dangers and stakes are clear; his story is the story of his father and the opposition movement he led from exile that kept him from his family. For Ashur Shamis, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) was creating an army for the liberation of Libya based on a “nationalist Islamist agenda”—a democratic society based on freedom of expression, progressive values, and religious plurality. Over 40 years, the revolution they envisioned was delayed and deferred, evolving from armed military effort into a media savvy campaign. When the revolution finally came in 2011, spearheaded by a new generation from within Libya, excitement and relief soon turned to exhaustion and despondency.
If you follow African cinema, then you have most likely seen the work of Khalid Shamis, even if you don’t realize it. From his home in Cape Town, Shamis has served as editor on some of the most memorable and exciting films from the continent in the past decade, particularly from first-time filmmakers and those pushing the boundaries of the documentary form. I myself only began to see this connection when I realized that a series of African documentary films I had curated alongside acclaimed documentary filmmaker Francois Verster back in 2017 all shared the same editor—Shamis. His filmography brings to mind the seldom acknowledged “auteur-editor.” Without lessening the achievements of these remarkable and talented filmmakers, Khalid’s editorial mark can be seen throughout this body of work. Shamis’s collaborations on films including Hajooj Kuka’s Beats of the Antonov, Mpumi Mcata’s Black President, and Perivi Katjavivi’s The Unseen, among many others, reflect the critical self-reflexivity, blend of the political and the intimate, and formal experimentation that characterize a new generation of African filmmaking. Echoing his mother’s declaration, perhaps film is their revolution.
This political and personal aesthetic translates into Shamis’s own directorial work. His first film, Imam and I (2011), focused on the killing of Imam Abdullah Haroon, Shamis’s maternal grandfather, by the apartheid state. In this film, Shamis set out to reconnect to his mother’s side of the family and the Muslim Cape Malay community in South Africa. Through still photographs, interviews, and animation, Shamis tells the story of a liberal, politically active Muslim leader whose role in anti-apartheid activism and murder by apartheid police were denied for years.
In Stray Dogs, Shamis reconstructs not only an “alternative history of modern Libya,” but also an intimate portrait of a family in exile. Shamis intersperses the political history of a nation with family home videos captured miles away, framing the story through the memories of children, absences, and traces of the past. We see the father as he may have appeared to his family at the time, obscured and in silhouette on national television to protect his identity. We hear voices from the past on taped messages, fleeting moments of connection and longing. We watch Shamis touch the archives of a revolutionary, neatly packed in an old suitcase: multiple passports, security files, the NFSL’s magazine “The Exiles” and catalogues of weapons. History is shown, not told, through archival footage of social life in colonial Tripoli to the rise of the Gaddafi regime in 1969 and through the decades of struggle leading up to the Arab Spring. History has a way of making the inconceivable seem inevitable, but here, the inevitable is painfully ever-present and deferred over decades of struggle, sacrifice, and loss.
Shamis plays with light and shade to bring this shadowy history into focus. He reflexively inserts himself into the frame: popping in to check on the camera placement, tenderly adjusting his father’s microphone, and engaging his parents directly in conversations—at times ambivalent and tense, at others warmly affecting—about a part of their family history that remains unspoken. His father recalls how he instructed his son not to say he was Libyan, a doubled exile from place and self. These multiple exiles—geographical, political, and personal—fracture the dreams both father and son hold for Libya. Yet, from the opening credits to the final scene, family abides.