This year marks the centenary of the beginning of World War I. With tensions rising in Europe as they have been lately, many contemporary political commentators look for parallels between our current political crisis and the start of that cataclysmic war. But as historians look at the bigger picture of that conflict in which millions died, sometimes the individual stories are lost.
In Rachel Beth Anderson and Tim Grucza’s harrowing feature documentary, “First to Fall”, the individual human cost of conflict takes centre stage. The film charts the experience of Hamid and Tarek, two young Canadian Libyan students who feel the call of their native land is too strong to resist and decide to travel back and take part in the movement to overthrow Libya’s then leader Muammar Gaddafi. The decision to return has ramifications that will change the course of their lives forever.
“First to Fall” begins in Montreal, where the two young men are searching the internet to find news of events taking place in Libya. The boys, despite the misgivings of friends and family decide they must leave their comfortable lives as Canadian students and travel to their native home. This decision is based – particularly in Tarek’s case – on the fact that they have relatives trapped in rebel cities, which were then facing Gaddafi’s approaching army.
Once in Libya the two young men must wait to find out if they will be granted permission by rebel forces to fight at the front. “First to Fall” perfectly captures the boys naivety and innocence as they anticipate their role of fighting at the front as some kind of live computer game. Neither seems to fully comprehend what they will encounter once they physically enter the conflict.
Hamid is the first to receive permission to go to Misrata, one of the key rebel cities. Once there he begins work as a cameraman documenting the horrors of the conflict, until he decides to fight. One of the film’s key moments is when Hamid picks up a gun. Rachel Beth Anderson states: “It was very important for the film to capture the moment that Hamid put down his camera and picked up a gun. That was a turning point for him, from that point on he became a fully-fledged fighter and from that moment, the course of his life changes”.
His friend Tarek also eventually gets permission to fight and joins a training camp in Misrata where he boys are reunited although their lives had already begun to take very different paths.
Rachel Beth Anderson, a journalist and one of the film’s directors revealed at an interview following the film’s London premier how much she had wanted to make “First to Fall”: “I was fascinated that so much of the movement for change in the Middle East was spearheaded by the young; that was one of the reasons why, as a journalist, I wanted to travel to the region and document what was happening there. While I was in Egypt covering events, unrest in Libya began. We all thought that it would be a six-week war because the Gaddafi regime would fall quite quickly. So I wasn’t prepared. I thought I would be filming for a few weeks but six months later I was still there.” Anderson went on: “I really wanted to personalise what was happening in Libya. To do that I needed to see events on the ground through the eyes of the fighters. I found Hamid first and then Tarek. After that, it was a matter of building up trust. I was lucky that we were able to build a bond between us. This was the only way it could have worked in making this film.”
As the storyline of First to Fall progresses, the dramatic changes both young men undergo is highlighted. Hamid’s naturally outgoing and fun loving personality attracts others to him and he becomes something of an unelected leader. Despite the fact that before arriving in Libya he had never even held a gun before, he quickly adapts to his new life. Hamid’s adjustment is in direct contrast to that of Tarek, who perhaps because of the physical handicap of being overweight combined with his natural shyness, finds the adjustment much more difficult. As both Hamid and Tarek start to take part in ferocious battles, Hamid is the first to be wounded. He subsequently spends an extended period of time convalescing in a local hospital, where he witnesses for the first time the suffering of Libya’s civilian casualties. The organisation Human Rights Watch has documented scores of attacks on civilian communities throughout various periods of the war, mainly by government forces but in some cases by rebel units, as well as cataloguing the effects of the use of cluster bombs and land mines.
Hamid, on crutches, tours the hospital and sees maimed and crying children as well as the bodies of fellow fighters, at one point he turns to the camera and says: “I think I’ve seen too much, how can I ever go back to my life now.”
“First to Fall” brilliantly captures how the joy, which once seemed ingrained in Hamid ‘s personality, eventually drains away and is replaced by a sad, solemnity. One of the few moments where we see traces of the old Hamid however, is when he talks about Tarek and expresses his concern for his friend’s safety: “He’s my responsibility, he’s like a little brother so I have to look out for him.”
Tarek meanwhile is worried about relatives trapped in the besieged city of Zawya and volunteers to take supplies there. On his return back to base, he is shot in the back by a government fighter, an injury that shatters his lower spine, leaving him in a wheelchair. Perhaps the saddest moment of the film comes when Hamid comes to visits his wounded friend and learns for the first time that Tarek will never walk again. Tarek’s eyes fill with tears as he tells Hamid the news, while Hamid simply stares in shock, overcome by grief; watching this scene it is clear that he is blaming himself for Tarek’s predicament and feels that he has let his old friend down.
First to Fall concludes two years after the end of Libya’s civil war. Tarek, has returned to his home in Montreal, where he struggles through his final interview with the director because the medication he must take to control the pain from his back injury makes him almost unintelligible. He tries to discuss his new life in Montreal and the support he receives from both family and friends but he refuses to discuss the war. Hamid meanwhile has remained in Libya and now works for the new government there, hoping to help re-established order. He too has dramatically changed, appearing much older then he was, with no sense of youth or frivolity.
As the film’s credits roll a small caption flags up which states that neither boy has spoken to the other since the end of the war. The director when asked about this at the interview following the London premier simply stated that Hamid is extremely busy with his new role for the new government and perhaps simply has not had time to contact his former best friend. However, the film suggests that there may be a more profound reason for this lack of contact, that perhaps for the two to speak directly to each other would require them to revisit the horrors they both witnessed first hand – memories that are possibly too painful to address.
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