It’s mid-February 2011 and citizens in Libya begin to protest the rule of Muammar Gaddafi. In Benghazi, what starts out as a few street protests escalates when police show up in force to squash the protests. This is followed shortly thereafter with yellow-helmeted thugs going into the crowds to beat and wound protesters, followed by the eventual engagement of soldiers, who begin shooting at, and hunting down, the protesters.
As the protests grow, and the protesters begin arming themselves in defense against the aggressive tactics aimed at them by the military, the soldiers retreat to the safety of the city’s 2-mile wide prison fortress, the Katiba. Once inside, they’re able to pick off the protesters as the rebellion tries to smash its way in and liberate the city. After many deaths and failed attempts at breaching the wall, only one tactic succeeds, when ordinary civilian and father of two, Mahdi Zew, drives his car, filled with gasoline and gelatin, into the anti-aircraft gun on the side of the Katiba.
What elevates We Win or We Die above a simple tale of martyrdom amid rebellion is the first-hand footage captured during the revolt in Benghazi. Seeing the footage of protesters being invaded by armored police or soldiers opening fire on the crowds puts into tight focus how desperate a situation the people of Benghazi faced when they decided to stand up to Gaddafi; the title becomes tragically apropos, as the protesters either win and overthrow Gaddafi’s rule in Benghazi, or they die.
Beyond the sometimes dispassionately deadpan narration, the one aspect of the film that I was not completely a fan of was the animated segments used to set up Mahdi Zew’s sacrifice. I’m not against the decision entirely; I understand the need to explain what he did, and how he did it, but considering the rest of the short is so in-your-face and visceral with what was going on, the switch to quiet animation is almost a bit too jarring in its calm. Perhaps there would’ve been another way to get the setup across? I don’t know, but the tonal shift didn’t entirely work for me, as I was more intrigued by the rest of the first-hand footage, and wished to spend more time there.
Overall, though, it’s not everyday you see a rebellion presented in such stark reality, without the filter of a news report, and We Win or We Die is a powerful document of the beginning of the Libyan revolution in 2011. I’m not sure whether the tale of Mahdi Zew was well-known outside of Benghazi, but this short film is a memorial to his sacrifice, and one day when historians look at the cracks that broke through Gaddafi’s rule, the fall of Katiba in Benghazi will no doubt be credited for its part.
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