Donga: From Gaddafi's demise to a decade of Libyan civil war
“Growing up fast means growing up painfully.” This is most probably the core message delivered by Muhannad Lamin’s compelling debut feature, titled Donga.
The film is set over ten years starting from the 2011 First Libyan Civil War, a time of great turmoil which led to the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule and irreversibly changed the future of the North African country.
The picture, produced by Tripoli-based outfit Khayal Productions, premiered in the Frontlight section of this year’s International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the world’s largest gathering celebrating non-fiction cinema, which ran from 8-19 November.
Before making his first feature, Lamin studied at the Tripoli Art Institute and worked as an editor, producer, and director on several projects, including the shorts Prisoner and Jailer (2019), A Life Story (2016), and 80 (2012).
"The documentary remains one of the few features shedding light on a tragic time in Libya’s history, sporting a privileged point of view and being so straightforward with its audience"
"Donga" is the name of the main character and film's cameraperson, who is first seen as a young witness of the widespread excitement leading to the uprising against the dictator in 2011.
Back then, he was just a 19-year-old boy from Misrata, one of the cities where the anti-Gaddafi sentiment was most felt. Soon enough, however, Donga joins the revolution and boldly goes to film the fighting with one of his closest friends.
Watching scenes set in a rather fancy but empty hotel in Istanbul, we realise that Donga, now a man close to his thirties, has been living there after being severely wounded in battle.
In this documentary, he looks back on the past ten years through excerpts from his videos, taking stock of the incredible events he was taking an active part in.
The extensive footage he has shot is often accompanied by his voice-over narration. His tone is firm, although marked by a mix of sadness and hopelessness.
We find out that the great hope and enthusiasm brought by the 2011 revolution gradually faded away in the years that followed, during which he ended up filming the fight against the terrorists of the Islamic State and General Khalifa Haftar’s military campaign. For better or worse, working with the camera is perhaps what kept Donga alive and motivated enough.
Throughout the picture, the director quite skilfully captures his inability to predict the psychological and physical consequences he would have faced.
Donga gradually realises that the war offers no way out and that many of the people he is meeting along the way might not survive in a few years time.
Donga’s own disillusionment reflects that of many Libyans who long hoped for a concrete change or, at least, an improvement of their freedoms and living standards.
Occasionally, the picture is interspersed with genuine moments of everyday life, with some of them also boasting light humorous touches. For example, after managing to overthrow the regime, Donga and some of his companions enjoy a well-deserved – yet very short – break in Tunis, where they sit in a café and think about things of their age, like girls and music. This scene, together with a few others, effectively reminds us of the protagonists’ lost youth.
The film is divided into several chapters and shaped as a cyclic narrative rich in flashbacks set between 2011 and 2021 and glimpses from the present time in Istanbul. The cycle is introduced and brought to a close by the day of the attack on which Donga is wounded. As we retrace his steps through the footage he has shot, we discover the events that led him to his hotel room in Turkey.
In conclusion, Lamin’s documentary achieves its main goal. It showcases ten long years of hardship, building a decent empathic bond with the viewer.
However, the picture’s potential is undermined by its convoluted narrative structure - which indulges in a few too many cinematic digressions - and a pacing that could have been improved with more honed editing work.
This “back and forth” approach might make the viewing of Donga more problematic for those who are not familiar with the country’s turbulent vicissitudes which unfolded over the last decade.
Nevertheless, the documentary remains one of the few features shedding light on a tragic time in Libya’s history, sporting a privileged point of view and being so straightforward with its audience.
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni