Tariq Elmeri – ‘My first instinct was to just film, film and film.’

Living in the USA and Libya, Tariq Elmeri is a young director interested in what constitutes cultural identities. As a prominent documentarian of the Libyan revolution in 2011 and a filmmaker dedicated to building bridges, we are happy to have his perspective on our program as a Jury member for Cheap Cuts 2016 and we met him to know more about the inspiration behind his films.

Tariq has just finished his NFTS studies with his short documentary Forest Gate Girls (2015). Starting off as an engineer, it would take a couple of years for his ambitions in documentary to take shape. However, his interest in video documentation started very early as a young man with a ‘tiny Sony camera.’

What did you record with your camera at the beginning?

Simple things. In Libya, during Gaddafi times, it was quite a luxury to be running through the streets with a video camera. One is always paranoid about someone asking you what you are doing or who you working for. The state just controls everything. So, if you are documenting something, even as silly as people having a coffee in the streets, someone will question you… which also has its thrill, of course.

How did you get involved in the documentation of Libya’s revolution in 2011?

I was more of an outside observer until the hours when rebels or revolutionaries came to approach or liberate my hometown Tripoli. I had all my cameras ready then; packed and fully charged. Before that, anyone who would film publically or secretly, would have to live in a very heightened state of security. When you have a fully paranoid state, there is only one outcome when they catch you filming. You will be deported or arrested, which is just the beginning of it.

I filmed from 2011 onwards until I left for London. During that time, I built up a huge archive of material that was disseminated to public broadcasters like France24, BBC or Aljazeera. I did not have any structure or story. I ended up just filming: observational and without a narrative. After the revolution, I formed a collective called 212 Group. Here we gave people training in filming with DSLR cameras to document the events. I was very eager to show them how to film in the moment without much material and to edit as they go instead of piling up rushes with hours of material. Sometimes, we would bring in other organisations like Internews to teach the journalistic technique of structuring and framing news and interviews. It was a very pragmatic style of teaching. From there I turned the collective into a tiny production company called INTAJ.

How did you go about filming those events?

At the time, my first instinct was to just film, film and film. Our collective became quite known, because at the time there was actually very little local and international media coverage of what was happening. It was hard to get into Libya as fighting was taking place in and around Tripoli. Telecommunication was disabled, so with little to no internet connection you had to really work hard to get stuff published. So, it was really about finding what was relevant. But, at the same time, I tried to never discriminate against the involved parties. I did not point my camera as a political tool to be biased, to support one person or another. We wanted to stay as neutral as possible. Now, thinking about it, that was probably an impossible undertaking. Back then, it was just simply important to me to document as much as I can. To document really the immediate things that no one else was really focusing on.

How did you feel about the political and social tensions involved?

The nature of these events is really particular. I just recently re-watched some of the material. It almost feels like someone else witnessed those events, because there are so many complicated and mixed emotions involved. Another interesting thing is that… At the beginning, when you are filming, you are super excited for change and what will come next. When you watch it again, with a different state of mind, you start noticing things: signs that where already pointing towards later events. In some of the interviews, I found a lot of little hints that, looking back, make you think: ‘Actually, you had all the signs!’ You start to see that it was not really going the way you thought it was. It is funny, one’s own interpretation of events.

What do you consider is neutral filmmaking?

It is a false premise, of course. Nowadays you have all of those observational or fly-on-the-wall documentaries without an apparent opinion or agenda. I used to think that it actually exists. But when you are filming you make decisions. You make decisions on what you film, what it is you seeking and what the conclusion is you want to draw. As you are editing there are things you leave in and others that you cut out. You are giving it a shape to take you from point A to point B. And that is more what filmmaking is. You take me and lead me a certain way and it is for me to decide what I think in the end. Asking questions is leaving room to think for the audience, but in the end you were trying to take them exactly there. So the revelation of the past years has really been for me to stop being nervous about presenting myself and getting my own voice and style. All of those things were quite challenging for me, because I always thought that having a camera was a convenient thing to shelter myself and not talk about myself. In reality, the best stories are always inspired by your own experiences.

So how did you move from a reportage/journalistic into a more narrative-driven documentary type of filmmaking?

I started by doing three little documentaries, portraits really, and then I moved towards my first bigger project called The Cave. I wanted that change of style and that was why I moved to London for the NFTS Masters programme. Here, I can take more time to see what it is that I am looking for. In Libya, everyday something new was happening.

So how did you get the idea for The Cave (2014)?

There was a little religious community on my university campus in the US and they would gather around for their rituals and to tell their stories. But other religious students shut themselves out completely and stopped listening to music. I always kept on asking myself the question of why music in particular and why it is that music is forbidden in certain schools of thought. I wanted my documentary to revolve around that question. During my research, I was pointed towards Rumi’s Cave in Kilburn, which is a little collective hub for musicians, poets and artists that gather for performances to escape their own community. Here, I met Faisal and decided to focus the whole film on his story. He just had this amazing presence and voice. Here I learned how important the character is for the narrative that you want to build. For me it was his openness, his energy, the way he cared about things and his charisma that was crucial to the story. I wanted to show him in the Salafi community he grew up in where music is rejected. At Rumi’s Cave, he is comfortable to sing and express himself. The film is really about him performing in front of a big audience against what is expected from him in his community. So he is battling his own self-doubt while finding his own identity.

Faisal from 'The Cave'

What question did you explore in your second documentary Forest Gate Girls(2015)?

I wanted to explore a subject from current affaires and, at the time, the public discourse engaged mostly with teenage girls leaving the UK for Syria and Iraq. That just interested me. I asked myself what would make a British-born Muslim girl leave everything she knows, her family and friends, for those places. They do not speak the language. So what could push those buttons? I wanted to know the reality behind it, because a lot of the media coverage was quite sensationalist. There was no room for investigation and questioning the subject. With all the public interest, bigger broadcasters already covered a lot of avenues for documentation, so I decided to put my focus on schools where it had happened. I ended up in an all girls school in Forest Gate. It took a while for the teenagers to get comfortable with us filming there. There was still a reluctance to talk, as the climate was tense. The council would call in regularly to see if any girls where missing or expressing a motivation to leave. We started just filming what happened on a specific day, a conflict or argument, and from these events we started following certain characters more closely.

Forest Gate Girls

After making this film, what is the answer you discovered for yourself towards your initial question?

I think it always revolves around identity. I have had this conflict in my head for years. In 2001, I was in my university in the U.S.A. and September 11th happened. Being in the United States as a Muslim student at that time, I just became really interested in identity, in how people see themselves and how others perceive them and their culture. These students are going through a similar process. The main focus of the film is always how the girls see themselves and how they think society sees them.

They feel quite comfortable in their own little community in East London but if they had to go to a college further down the road they would feel insecure and paranoid. They would ask questions like ‘Am I ok dressed like this or talking like this or being like this?’ They would then talk about how they never mingle with anybody. These girls are under tremendous pressure. Being a teenager is confusing enough, let alone having your identity being dissected on a daily basis in the media.

As you are interested in the subject of identity in your documentaries, what is ‘identity’ for you in general and as a filmmaker?

I am just really intrigued by how we construct identities. On the surface, we always consider each other as different in the way we live and behave. We always consider someone else as the ‘other’. There is always this construction of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. And this seems to be very prevalent nowadays. But this identification is really dependent on where you are geographically. For me, I always experienced being an ‘other’, because of the way I grew up in the U.S. and in Libya. My identity always changed according to whom I was talking to. I like investigating a cultural identity through how the respective community is perceived, what the reality is and how it thinks it is perceived. This explanation is very simplified. The goal is to see what the basic human similarities are and to deconstruct what makes ‘other’. We all want the same thing, but on the surface we create unnecessary differences. Exploring that further is what interests me. I hope that my own, nomadic identity and my different perspectives on culture can be a bridge for people. I am always drawn to subjects where I feel that they are misunderstood because of cultural differences. I then hope to open doors to shape a new understanding of certain themes.

There is this saying that “Documentaries are creating the smallest window with the biggest view”. I just like to focus on a small story to shed as much light on a bigger issue as I can.

What interested you in Cheap Cuts Film Festival?

I was really interested in the concept of focusing on short documentaries. I mean today we live in an age with many new media arising. So many short documentary platforms emerge and outlets, like The Guardian, really build on this evolution. I also could really relate to those Cheap Cuts’ principles to move away from equipment. I realised for myself that equipment does not make a good documentary and that it takes good storytelling. It is the process of making the film more than the expensive camera. That the festival is available to everyone without financial requirements is also really important.

What do you expect from a good short documentary?

Here, the festival’s concept plays again a major role. I judge the films based on story telling, selection of characters, style and structure. It is never about how good the camera or the sound equipment. The best are just the ones that keep you interested no matter what it is about.

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