Osama Rezg: “It’s not just the war in Libya”

Freedom of expression is a daily struggle for Osama Rezg. Despite threats, Libyan director and producer signed the Ramadan series this year The Two Leaders. In 18 episodes, he returns to the history of the fight against Italian colonization and the fight of the Libyans to unite their country under a single banner. After Phobia, Dragunov, Rubik and Zanghat Areeh, Osama Rezg pursues his dream of telling the story of Libya through the cinema and enhancing the image of his country. He confided in Point Afrique.

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Le Point Afrique: The Two Leaders relates the fight of Souleyman al-Barouni and Bashir Saadawi between 1887 and 1923 in the fight against colonization. Why did you decide to tell this story?

Osama Rezg: I wanted to highlight an episode in the history of Libya that has always been hidden and that a large part of our people ignore. I wanted to do it by highlighting inspiring characters, intellectuals. We don’t just need idols who are active in war activism. No. It is necessary to present characters of science and literature. Souleyman al-Barouni, for example, was a graduate of al-Azhar in Cairo, Zitouna in Tunisia, Algeria … Bashir Saadawi was mainly a man of science. He was a governor in some cities in Turkey and Lebanon.

Throughout history, I also wanted to highlight how our ancestors put the homeland before their personal interest. It is thanks to this that they succeeded in uniting Libya. And this is the opposite of what is happening now. Our ancestors had to turn a blind eye to certain conflicts for the ultimate goal of the union of Libya, which I hope to see today.

Osama Rezg, Libyan director, in Tunis.
© Morgane Wirtz

In the introduction to the series, you announce that “this narrative is based on real facts from Libyan history, treated in a dramatic manner, to follow illuminating examples and to go beyond polemical facts”. Why did you decide to overshadow certain episodes in Libyan history?

In Libya, there are cities and tribes that are in conflict today because of stories that go back to 50, even 70 years ago. Our message is to reconcile these tribes and not to talk about the origins of these conflicts.

In the future, perhaps, when the situation is comfortable to highlight these points, we can deal with them in an artistic way or another. But right now, we wanted to avoid problems and conflicts. And we clearly didn’t manage to avoid them!

What is the daily life of a Libyan producer and director like?

It’s very difficult. Security constraints are difficult. The general atmosphere is not conducive to creativity. This is for people who want to give up. But for those who persist in creating, they will always find a way. And I like to take on challenges. Since 2012, despite the circumstances, we have continued to produce.

Until 2014, we were filming in Libya. There were many security concerns given that weapons were common in the country. Now we are working in Tunisia.

Osama Rezg, in front of a scene bringing together Souleyman al-Barouni and Bashir Saadawi, the main characters of Two Leaders.
© Tarek Herichi

Do you face threats?

Yes. We are under threat from different levels; be it extremist groups, less extremist armed militias, or even the sons of politicians. We live with threats. But in general, I am not afraid and that is not what will stop me. I know that I work in an artistic field, that I make art. It will appeal to some, it will not appeal to others. No honest judge can judge me for the art I do.

Are these death threats?

Certainly. But the body of their goal is to threaten our freedom of expression, to stop our production. For example, for the series The Two Leaders, we have received threats from eastern Libya to stop production and prevent us from continuing production. And this, since the first episode! They didn’t even wait to see the rest. They said it’s a series that hijacks reality, since it highlights other activists than Omar al-Mokhtar, who comes from the east of the country and who, for these people, was the only activist. However, this is not true. There are several people who fought Italian colonialism and who have the right to be cited. I find it absurd that certain tribes want to appropriate militancy.

But the intimidation does not only emanate from eastern Libya. Over the series I have made, I have received threats from many parts of the country.

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Many of your actors are Tunisian. Why ?

It’s true, almost 50% of my cast is made up of Tunisian actors. This is mainly for three reasons. First, there are fewer and fewer Libyan actors. Many have retired. And, in Libya, there is no continuous cinematographic work that would allow us to see new actors. Second, there is the language problem. We wanted to do the series in classical Arabic, which some Libyan actors do not speak very well, compared to Tunisian actors. Third, often, I needed an actor for a single scene, or two. This represents about a day of work. I couldn’t bring a Libyan actor for a single scene. Between the plane ticket, the salary and the pocket money, it was going to cost us too much.

Osama Rezg chats with actor Rabie el-Kati before filming a scene.
© Tarek Herichi

Does the fact of having shot the entire series in Tunisia, for security reasons, with a majority of Tunisian actors pose a problem when we decided to tell a Libyan story?

Around the world, this should not be a problem. What matters in the work of an actor is the quality of his play and not his nationality. In the United States, there are cowboy films made with actors from Ireland, Australia or of any nationality. Unfortunately, this question still sometimes arises in Libya, where we hear somewhat extremist voices who ultimately want to do a DNA test for the actors. I find it absurd, the question should not arise.

This story should highlight the weakness of the Libyan art scene.

There are a lot of contradictions behind this. On the one hand, since the Libyan people are relatively conservative, families do not want their children to become actors or artists. On the other hand, it is claimed that this series is shot by Libyan actors. I find this absurd.

Who funded this series?

They are mainly sponsors and advertisers. After the success of Zangat Areeh, they knew that the next series would be a success. These are telecom operators, car dealerships, food producers who volunteered to finance this series, in collaboration with the Salam chain, which is a Libyan chain.

How is distribution organized in a country at war?

Since the film industry in Libya is not very developed, it is the Salam chain which manages the diffusion. It broadcasts on its channel and on its YouTube channel.

We consider that the series The Two Leaders was a great success. The first episode was viewed almost 600,000 times on YouTube. What is exceptional is that she was seen by an audience outside the country. In Libya, the Internet connection is very weak and it does not allow you to watch a series online. The 600,000 views are therefore Libyans abroad, people from Algeria, Oman, Morocco, Tunisia …

Another sign of success: Salam is currently in contact with three or four other channels from the Arab world who would like to rebroadcast the series later.

Shooting of the last scene in the series The Two Leaders, in Tozeur, in the south of Tunisia.
© Tarek Herichi

But for the other episodes, there are fewer views. Does that appeal to you?

It is true that the following episodes make an average of 150,000 views. But Zanghat Areeh, which is one of the most famous series in the history of Libya, had an audience rate of almost 80% when it was broadcast in Libya. Now, the first episode of Zanghat Areeh on YouTube only made 250,000 views.

Today, if we are at 150,000 views for the other episodes, it’s huge. Things have to be put in the Libyan context, where very few people are interested in art.

Where do you get your strength from?

I get it from my personal character. I am a very stubborn person. I want to fulfill my goals. I like to take on challenges. I do what I do out of passion. I think everyone could do something in peacetime. But today we are in wartime and that adds a new charm, a new challenge to my work. I like to take up the challenge of succeeding in these conditions.

It saddens me a lot to see that the only image in Libya right now, across the world, is war, militias, weapons … In Libya, there are a lot of artists, people cultivated, people who deserve to be heard. Many Libyans are fighting to restore life to Libya. I am one of them. By my art, I want to tell the whole world that there is not only war in Libya.

LOOK the trailer for the series The Two Leaders, produced by Wallid Ellafi, written by Azza Shalbe and Ahmed Nabil and directed by Osama Rezg.

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